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Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

by on 2011/04/12

I could say it was the dance that won me over, but it wouldn’t really be true.

The truth is I was hooked early on, and rapt all along. The dance didn’t happen until near the end, and I’d already found something deeper by then.

“Knee deeper” someone might respond, for Napoleon Dynamite is nothing if not polarizing. So if you’re one of those people who already despises the movie, you may as well scroll past. I don’t suppose anything I venture is likely to change your mind.

It’s hard for me to imagine any insight is sufficient to trump an instinctive reaction where humour is concerned. As much as I might intellectualize Duck Soup, for example, it simply didn’t make me laugh, or cry, or get invested in any way. Napoleon Dynamite makes me feel all these reactions, no matter how often I see it.

Maybe it’s an iota away from teaching me something profound. Maybe it reminds me of the outsiders I disparaged, the kind of man-child I never (quite) became or — most terrifyingly of all — the alien eccentric I was to my peers. Maybe, as Prince and Milhouse suggest, it’s “what it sounds like when doves cry.”

The title’s hero lives in rural Idaho, in a town that time forgot almost a full generation ago. The most obvious clue it’s not 1982 are the occasional references to the internet (although access is charged by the minute). Improbably named Napoleon Dynamite, actor Jon Heder’s teenaged alter-ego lives with his 32-year-old brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), and their extreme sporting grandmother.

Life is tough for the boy. Bespectacled, with unenviable hair, and little capacity for grace, he suffers through an indifferent, sarcastic, or outright hostile life, both at school and at home. When his obnoxious Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) arrives to stay a while, the situation worsens. With the support of fellow misfits Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino) he has a chance of surviving high school, but only if he learns to support them too.

The quirk on display nearly suggests this is not a conventional Hollywood story. Nearly. However, it is potent enough to discourage viewers who cannot relate or reconcile themselves to it. In truth, they may not be missing much in missing out. Like Bob Roberts, its fans will self-select. I can’t fathom either converting anyone who dislikes the early going.

And so I barely see the point of doing any deep analysis. Deconstructing the narrative, judging dialogue and performance, itemizing production elements . . . really, what’s the point? Of course you could say the same of any effort, but my affection for Napoleon Dynamite may, admittedly, be irrational.

If my reaction to Gentlemen Broncos or the ads for Nacho Libre had been more favourable, I might chalk it up to an affection for the style of the filmmakers, Jared and Jerusha Hess. But, aside from Jemaine Clement’s performance in the former . . . well, it just wasn’t favourable at all.

To my mind, it’s all about the characters, a cross-section of variously aged desperate disappointments. In fact, I’m not convinced it’s a “comedy” at all in the modern sense of the word. It strikes me as (slightly) exaggerated realism, a drama illustrating the tension between aspiration and frustration.

Illustrating that tension, I felt the film’s most poignant moment was Rico’s pathetic boast, “How much do you want to bet I could throw a football over them mountains?” Well, that’s exactly what happened with Napoleon Dynamite itself: the cast and crew actually attempted — and managed — the impossible.

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for its A-Team style montage.

* * * * *

Rated G (Canada) / PG (United States)

94 minutes

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