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Napoleon Dynamite (2004)::rating::2.5::rating::2.5

In some ways, Napoleon Dynamite has all the attitude and quotability of any edgy teen comedy.  On the surface, it should be an instant classic, and some viewers will still swear that it is.  But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an audacious, eccentric little movie that stands in total opposition to its entire genre.  In that sense, Napoleon Dynamite is something of an achievement:  A goofy lark that altered the 00s zeitgeist despite its undercurrents of off-putting weirdness.  Unfortunately, it’s also a fine line between clever and funny, and this fondly-remembered flick never quite strikes that balance.

Napoleon Dynamite isn’t so much driven by plot as a series of odd happenings.  Much like the relentlessly whimsical films of Wes Anderson, this story seems to just float in its own sea of strangeness.  What’s more, even in this quirky little ocean, the title character seems to be an island unto himself.  Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) has a teflon sense of self-assuredness:  He’s the world’s cockiest dweeb.  Never mind the bullies who brutalize him, or the family who marginalizes him, Napoleon is unfazed.  (“What are you going to do today, Napoleon?” “Whatever I feel like I wanna do!  Gosh!”)

As with the Anderson films, there isn’t a normal character in sight.  Kip (Aaron Ruell), Napoleon’s equally abrasive brother, squanders his afternoons chatting with internet babes.  Grandma (Sandy Martin), their sole parental figure, treks off to race dune buggies and pick up a boyfriend.  That’s no problem, because Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) rolls in to pinch hit for her.  Rico is a walking, talking glob of toxic masculinity–still lost in the high school glory that could’ve been, and the bulging biceps that never were.  From minute one, Rico unloads his schemes on the locals and wreaks havoc on Napoleon’s personal life.  Or, you know, what there is of it.

Along this journey, Napoleon also picks up a new best friend.  Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is a recent arrival from Mexico, but his charmless amiability and clunky personality make him a kindred spirit to Napoleon.  The two of them form a maddening, inert love triangle with Deb (Tina Majorino), who sells makeup and hair products door-to-door.  Napoleon is so tremendously awkward, that his plot to land Deb involves Pedro taking her to the big dance.

And that’s the admirable thing about this whole movie:  Almost everything about it is an ironic flip on the classic teen tropes.  In most movies, Napoleon would have to be a mangy dork with a heart of gold.  Here, is defiantly unrelatable, from wire to wire.  (He even has no love for his pet llama, who he dismisses as a “fat lard.”)  There is no cool guy mentor, no teacher who believes in him, or no villain who learns to be better from him.  If anything, Napoleon Dynamite is an ironic deconstruction of the teen genre itself–much like how Seinfeld once dismantled the sitcom.

For that, I’ll tip my cap to director Jared Hess, who co-writes with his wife Jerusha.  They create this bizarre ecosystem, and send their unique band of characters wandering through it.  Nothing unfolds as it should, a fact that imbues Napoleon Dynamite with a ramshackle charm.

Even better, the cast seems to go all-in, as well.  Heder plays Napoleon perfectly, right down the vacant, mouth-breathing stare.  Majorino is fine as the film’s flickering humanity, and Gries wrings a few laughs as the guy who can’t even pull off being a has-been.

That brings me to my central problem with this entire movie:  For all its cleverness, for all its smarts, many of the actual laughs just don’t land.  They’re just, you know, weird.  For example, why is Napoleon dragging an action figure on a fishing line behind his school bus?  Or, why does he carry tater tots in his cargo shorts?  Without any likability to latch onto, Napoleon is just an uncouth dude who stumbles from one scene to next.  Maybe it’s just the cynicism I’ve earned since it first came out, but I found myself not laughing in scene after scene.   Napoleon Dynamite has a legion of devoted fans.  Just don’t count me as one of them.

96 min.  PG.  Hulu.


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