...makes a good attempt for about its first quarter hour at showing us the dilemma of the high school outsider, but I found a movie like Ghost World much more honest and insightful.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Given that most teen comedies these days substitute raunch for humor, 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite" is at least different. You won't find a fart joke, a potty gag, a drug reference, a sexual prank, or a naughty word in sight. Not that this necessarily makes the film any better than others of its kind, but it does make it different in today's climate of far more smut-charged entertainment. Unfortunately, though, by not trying to be stylishly outrageous or wacky, "Napoleon Dynamite" is so laid-back, so low-key, and so inoffensive, it's sometimes in danger of infecting an audience with terminal boredom.

While the movie boasts a sweet spirit and is never preachy or sentimental, it's rather aloof, too. Which may be part of its problem for me. The movie tries very hard to be liked, but it never reached down and touched my emotions the way I thought it should. It kept me at a distance, as an acquaintance but never a friend. Indeed, the movie affected me much as its main character affects the people around him; the movie and the character keep others at an arm's length.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is the unlikely name of the main character, a tall, gawky, nerdy high-school teen living with his older, nerdy brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), and their grandmother (Sandy Martin) in rural Idaho. Napoleon appears to have few or no friends, preferring to play tetherball by himself and draw pictures all the time. He's into the usual nerd weirdness--high fantasy, dungeons and dragons, the Loch Ness monster, UFO's, hamburgers--you know, all the stuff you and I like.

When a new boy, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), arrives at school and finds he's the only Mexican in an all-white Anglo environment, Napoleon strikes up a friendship with him. Then when Napoleon's granny gets into an accident, his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to live with them, which seems a little odd considering that the older brother, Kip, appears to be in his twenties. Undoubtedly, a part of the film's subdued humor. Anyway, the story involves Napoleon helping Pedro run for school president; Napoleon developing a relationship with a shy teenage girl, Deb (Tina Mojarino); Uncle Rico and Kip promoting a scheme to sell housewares; and Kip romancing a computer friend he's met in a chat room.

I wish I could have liked this picture better than I did, because I've heard a lot of nice things about it, how kind and real and revealing it is. Unfortunately, I found most of it flat and predictable after the first few minutes.

First, there is little plot to the movie. It's simply a series of vaguely connected events strung together over a period of several weeks. Of course, that's part of the point, director Jared Hess (who cowrote the picture with his wife Jerusha) attempting to portray the average daily affairs of ordinary people. But ordinary, real-life people don't lead very exciting lives, which is why not many movies are made about you or me. (OK, I'll just speak for myself.)

Second, almost all of the characters speak in flat, deadpan monotones. This is a clever gimmick at first and adds to the realistically casual mood of the picture, but before long things become so relaxed these people are in danger of falling off the screen in a snooze. The only characters who speak in anything approaching a natural tone of voice are Uncle Rico and a wacko martial-arts instructor named Rex (Diedrich Bader). They stand out among the others because of their energy and their normal voice inflections.

Third, all of the characters we meet are one-sided clichés. As much as the filmmakers want to make these people common folk, they are, in fact, exaggerations. Napoleon is angular and awkward, with frizzy hair, big glasses, and low self esteem, who mopes around the house all day when he's not moping around the high school campus. Every day is the worst day of his life. Deb is so shy she literally runs from people. Kip is so squirrelly he can only find a relationship through his computer. Pedro is quiet and tenderhearted but his relatives are mean-looking low-riders. The girls in school are either beautiful airheads or bashful brains. The boys in school are either loser dorks or athletic bullies. The neighboring farmers and cattle ranchers are all hayseed nincompoops to the man. And true to all teen films, parents (in this case Napoleon's grandmother) are conveniently out of the picture for most of the plot.

Films like this have to deal in exaggerations, naturally, but when we're never shown any of the 90% of in-betweens in the world, we have to wonder just how sincere the filmmakers are being in their apparent attempt to show life as it really is. The film comes off as too serious to be taken as farce and too farcical to be taken seriously.

Again, it's the bigger-than-life Uncle Rico who is something a little less than clichéd. He is a big talker with nothing on the ball, a former high school football star now twenty years on and reliving the glory days of his youth. He wishes he could find a time machine and go back to 1982 and live it all over again. Indeed, the dimwit even mail-orders a worthless time-machine gizmo in the hope of its working. The somewhat obscure point here seems to be that the film itself is a kind of time machine, taking us back to those glory years of John Hughes in the eighties, with films like "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" that were gentle and winning and evoked an innocence we have somehow lost. So maybe if that point had been played up more and this had been Uncle Rico's movie instead of Napoleon's, it might have worked better for me. I dunno.

Fourth, none of the characters are particularly likeable. Napoleon is so very unhappy with his self-imposed loneliness that he grouches at everyone for the better part of the movie; he's really quite unpleasant. Uncle Rico is a conceited, arrogant snake, in love with himself and his muscles. The cheerleaders are snobs. The football players are jerks. Only Pedro and Deb are at all kindhearted, but neither of them is very interesting as a person. And nobody, but nobody, has a sense of humor. Dang, these folks are dull.

I wonder if I would have liked this film more had I identified better with the characters. I wonder, too, if I wasn't secretly laughing at, rather than with, some of these movie portrayals; I mean, it isn't hard to do. "Napoleon Dynamite" makes a good attempt for about its first quarter hour at showing us the dilemma of the high school outsider, but I found a movie like "Ghost World" much more honest and insightful in accomplishing the same thing.

The geeky premise of "Napoleon Dynamite" wears thin fast, as I've said, and a few minutes with these sad sacks was enough for me. The bleak Idaho landscape aptly reflects the bleak lives of the movie's characters, but that gimmick, too, wears out its welcome pretty quickly. Like the "Napoleon Dynamite" characters, the movie wants to be liked; it just doesn't know how to go about doing it.

The picture is presented in both its original theatrical-release widescreen, an anamorphic aspect ratio measuring approximately 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD television; and in 1.33:1 "fullscreen," which cuts off a small portion of the sides of each frame. Occasionally, one notices, however, that the fullscreen also displays a bit more information at the top and bottom of a frame, so you take your choice of matting. Since the widescreen was the format shown in theaters, it's the one I watched.

The actual picture quality can vary from slightly blurred to absolutely perfect, so, again, you take the good with the bad. Most of the time, the image quality is quite good, so I wouldn't worry about it. Colors are natural without being overly bright or overly dark, a serious plus. Grain, halos, moiré effects, and other digital artifacts are non-issues. More plusses. Let's conclude that the video quality is fine.

The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1, although there isn't much need for all 5.1 channels in a movie so dialogue driven as this one. Most of the time, you won't even notice the movie is in two-channel stereo, let alone multichannel surround. The frequency response is modest, as is the dynamic range, except in two scenes: one featuring a low-rider car and another featuring a dance sequence. Then the rear channels, the low bass, and the dynamics all come into their own. Otherwise, the sound does its job quietly and efficiently.

The movie comes on a single, dual-sided disc. Side A contains the feature film in fullscreen; twenty scene selections; an audio commentary with director/co-writer Jared Hess, actor Jon Heder, and producer Jeremy Coon; an original, eight-minute, black-and-white short film, "Peluca," on which the feature was based, again with optional commentary; a three-minute featurette, "The Making of the Wedding of the Century," a kind of follow-up to the movie's story, with comments from the actors; some MTV on-air promos; a trailer for "Arrested Development"; and various theatrical trailers for other Fox products. Side B contains the feature film in widescreen, the twenty scene selections and audio commentary; four deleted scenes, also with commentary; and a still gallery. English and Spanish are available for the movie's spoken languages, with English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.

Parting Shots:
The characters in "Napoleon Dynamite" are filled with a lot of humanity; that is, they are made to seem as real and human as possible, a commendable asset in a motion picture. But they are also stereotyped and one-sided. Everyone seems angry, bored, boring, conceited, airheaded, dim-witted, or backward to the point of annoyance. I liked the movie's premise; I liked its winsome heart; I liked its attempt to present a story without gross overtones. But I found the end result more tedious than entertaining or uplifting, the characters more vacuous than genuine.


Film Value