Napoleon Dynamite (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Napoleon Dynamite should be required therapy for anyone with a self-image problem. No matter how much of a loser a person believes himself to be, he couldn't possibly be in worse shape than the protagonist of Jared Hess' wickedly funny high school comedy. With a low-key sense of humor and without the slightest whiff of sentimentality, Hess delivers a film about geeks that makes Revenge of the Nerds look like the Hollywood tripe that it is. Napoleon Dynamite isn't about a cute, cuddly, inoffensive movie nerd; the main character is morose, antisocial, and has a working understanding of what happened in Columbine. There's plenty of humor in the film, but the movie is often a little uncomfortable to watch, and Napoleon is not an easy guy to like. Rooting for him takes effort.

One of the reasons why Napoleon Dynamite works is because of its tone. Hess and his actors underplay everything. Similarities to the work of Wes Anderson may be coincidental, but they are present. In many ways, the comedy is funny because the actors aren't playing the material for laughs. These individuals believe in their characters, and that conviction comes across. And if Napoleon and his friends aren't entirely likeable, who says they have to be? As we're laughing at these characters, we're warming up to them.

John Heder plays Napoleon like a teenager who doesn't quite fit into his long, lanky body. The performance is dead-on. I don't know if Heder was a nerd in real life, but he certainly makes us believe. He subsists on a farm with his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a 30-something ex-jock who lives in the past, and his freaky older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends most of his waking hours in Internet chat rooms. Despite looking like he's old enough to have completed college, Napoleon is still in high school, where he occupies the lowest rung of the social pecking order (getting slammed into a locker by someone bigger and more self-assured is a daily occurrence). Napoleon's only friend is Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the "new kid." Napoleon doesn't have a girlfriend, but he has his eye on Deb (Tina Majorino) - until Pedro beats him to the punch by asking her to the upcoming dance. So Napoleon has to settle for going with the daughter of one of his uncle's clients.

Not much happens during the course of Napoleon Dynamite. This is essentially a meet-and-greet movie, where we spend about 85 minutes getting to know the smart, sullen, socially maladjusted Napoleon. The biggest events are the dance and the school election, in which Napoleon becomes Pedro's campaign manager. And, as in all movies about losers, there's a chance for a measure of redemption, and Napoleon Dynamite shows its good heart by allowing for a ray of hope at the end. Director Hess (who wrote the film with his wife, Jerusha) has a dry wit and is unconcerned about mocking his characters, but he doesn't let the end credits come without showing them some affection. So, although Napoleon Dynamite may not be the most immediately endearing protagonist to grace the silver screen this summer, there's something memorable about him and the motion picture that bears his name.

Napoleon Dynamite (United States, 2004)

Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Tina Majorino, Haylie Duff
Screenplay: Jared Hess & Jerusha Hess
Cinematography: Munn Powell
Music: John Swihart
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:26
U.S. Release Date: 2004-06-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1