NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004)
This is a small film, a very good one, told large. The director, Jared Hess, the 24 year old wunderkind from the barrens of Preston, Idaho, has created a gem; a cousin to the Coens. This is a comedy that sneaks up on you; the stuff of belly laughs, based on watching a rural slice of life, and characters that seem both original and familiar. Hess is credited as already having been a crewmember, an actor, a writer, a cinematographer, and now…a director. Last year he created a 9-minute short film, entitled PELUCA, starring his pal, Jon Heder, as the world’s oddest high school student, living in Preston, ID. This seemed to have been the outline for the feature film of this year. Perhaps showing it helped him raise the funding. Jared’s wife, Jerusha, co-wrote the feature, and did the costumes. Hess is from Preston, and he filmed! it as only a resident could; full of empty landscapes, lonely roads, farmers, ranchers, and rednecks; small town eccentricities. A scene where Napoleon gets a job for the day working on a chicken farm is worth the price of admission.
Napoleon: Do the chickens have large talons?
Farmer: Do they have what?
Napoleon: Large talons.
Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.
There have been numerous comparisons to Todd Solondtz’s WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, RUSHMORE, and the epoch of the NERDS I, II, & III, The Truimph, The Revenge, and In Paradise. Yet, for me, this film stands firmly on its own. It plays out like a straight absurdist drama, like WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, that just happens to be quite funny. It is reminiscent of the best moments of the Coen Brother’s RAISING ARIZONA; straight on, deadpan, in your face and into the camera.
The film was a big hit at Sundance, and it has been distributed well, and is being seen widely; a lucky break for Hess. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the youth of our country, could rally behind this tiny epic, and create a cult of some stature; versus the mind-numbing bone-chilling stupidity of rap violence and gangsta comedy they presently immerse themselves in; step away from the commedia del raunchy, and actually laugh at themselves, as they actually are; just kids struggling to grow up, dealing with their own insecurities, angst, rebellious spirits, rage, cruelty, racism, and raging hormones ? After all we live in an unenlightened age where the 13-30 year old demographic dictates our art, our music, and our movies. This little film could go a long ways in restoring the missing heart, the naïveté and grace to the comedic genre.
One real plus for me personally was the odd wholesomeness of this movie. There was zero profanity. The worst language the characters ever used were derivatives of the F-word, like frigging or freaking. Most of the time when a script deletes realistic high school vernacular, into expletives like gosh, dang, heck, frigging, and retarded, it usually morphs quickly into the landscape of the lame. But somehow, Hess makes the lack of obscenity work. We don’t miss it.
Kid on Bus: What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?
Napoleon: Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!
Don: Hey Napoleon. What did you do last summer again?
Napoleon: I told you! I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines.
Don: Did you shoot any?
Napoleon: Yeah, like, fifty of them! They were surrounding my cousin! What the heck would you do in a situation like that?
Don: What kind of gun did you use?
Napoleon: A friggin twelve gauge, what he heck do you think?
The film is a marvelous gumbo, mixing a huge number of talented newcomers, with a few seasoned veterans. Somehow, there in the metropolis of Preston, ID, Hess rustled up the talent he needed. His cinematographer, Munn Powell, a first time lenser, did a good job of conveying both the beauty and loneliness of the place. The film editor, and executive producer, Jeremy Coon, is a high school buddy of Hess’s. John Swihart did the film’s score. He is almost a veteran, having composed scores for seven other Indie features. Roger Ebert was not impressed with this movie. He rated it as half of one star…wow! He wrote,” We are supposed to find humor that the movie pretends not to know about.” My God, great Pulitzer prize-winning film critic guru, what kind of a mood where you in the day you viewed this film? Had you just suffered thro! ugh the latest Troma film? I usually do not disagree with Sensei Ebert, but this time he needed to lighten up, and let this movie works its magic. It has plenty to spare.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, called Jon Heder,” deadpan geek perfection.” He loved the film, rating it 3 stars, and directing us, “ to laugh until it hurts!” Heder is a lanky beanpole with a red Afro, all Adam’s apple and oversized glasses, and overbite. At first glance one sees a young Yahoo Serious, the Australian actor that faded out after 3 films, or a young Scott “Carrot Top” Thompson. But no, Heder is more, and less, than they are.
He is more natural, more believable, more absurd, and wonderfully unselfconscious. He is less the over-the-top screamer, the Bobcat Goldthwaite in your face kind of comic. In Heder’s best moments, like when he played tetherball with himself, or practiced his killer dance moves alone in his room, he reminded me of some of the great clowns; like a young Jerry Lewis in THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, a nice blend of sentiment and slapstick, or sometimes even the precursory shadings, the subtlety of a Jacques Tati, or the pathos of Jackie Gleason in GIGOT. Heder is Napoleon Dynamite, a prince of Preston, a nerdish Hamlet out to slay demons, or maybe just get laid.
Napoleon (to Pedro): You know, there’s like a butt-load of gangs at this school. This one gang kept wanting me to join because I’m pretty good with a bowstaff.
Napoleon (to Deb): Well, I have all your equipment in my locker. You should probably get it cause I can’t fit my nunchucks in there anymore.
Napoleon (to the World): Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills. You know, like nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, and computer hacking skills.
Deb: What are you drawing?
Napoleon: A liger.
Deb: What’s a liger?
Napoleon: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed…bred for its skills in magic.
The setting for the film seems to be the early 1990’s. Napoleon, and his older brother, Kip, lived with their grandmother, played by Sandy Martin, who does a great turn as a biker grandma, who still dates, eats entirely too much steak, and loves her llama, Tina. I
Don’t think it was ever made clear why the grandsons were with her. Aaron Ruell, as the brother Kip, the 32 year old who has been a nerd for so long he is oblivious to it, does a fine job with the role. He lives in front of his computer, logging countless hours in chat rooms, searching for cyber-love, running up huge internet bills. Ruell, a former crew member, made his film debut.
Napoleon: Yeah, just stay at home and eat all the freakin chips, Kip.
Kip: Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting on line with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I am training to be a cage fighter.
Tina Majorino, as Deb, Napoleon’s sort-of girlfriend, was wonderfully wacky, off-center,
and loveable. A former child star, from films like WATERWORLD, she is 19 years old now, and she is good enough to be slugging it out with the likes of Thora Birch, Jena Malone, and Christina Ricci for those Odd Girl parts. She found the sweet quirkiness and heartfelt honesty of her character.
Jon Gries, an actor since he had a small part in WILL PENNY in 1968, the son of famed director Tom Gries, was very good as the greasy arrogant ignorant horny and deluded Uncle Ricco; a man stuck in the past, reliving a fake fantasy that back in the mid 80’s when he played football in high school, he might have been a great star, even gone pro, if his stupid coach hadn’t left him on the bench so much.
Uncle Ricco: (referring to a video he made of him throwing a football) What do you think?
Kip: It’s pretty cool, I guess.
Uncle Ricco: Oh man, I wish I could go back in time. I’d take state.
Napoleon: This is pretty much the worst video ever made.
Kip: Napoleon, like anyone would know that.
Uncle Ricco: You know what, Napoleon? You can leave.
Napoleon: You guys are retarded.
Uncle Ricco: How much do you wanna made a bet I can throw a football over them mountains? Yeah… if Coach woulda’ put me in that fourth quarter, we would’ve been state champions. No doubt in my mind.
Efrem Ramirez, as Napoleon’s best friend Pedro, is a veteran actor from ten films. His baby face serves him well. He did an excellent job of playing the droll, muted yet intense, insecure, single Latino in Preston High. When he decided to run for class president, against the popular cheerleader, Summer Wheatly (played coyly by Haylie Duff), the tempo seems to shift, and we begin to see that this sad and funny drama was going to grow and bend into a fantasy tale; with underdogs rising to the occasion, taking on overwhelming odds, and of course emerging victorious.
Pedro: Do you think people will vote for me?
Napoleon: Heck, yes! I’d vote for you.
Pedro: Like what are my skills?
Napoleon: Like you have a sweet bike. And you’re really good at hooking up with chicks. Plus you’re like the only guy at school who has a moustache. How long did it take you to grow that?
Pedro: A couple of days. Hey, if I win, you can be my secretary, or something.
In smaller roles we find Diedrich Bader as the karate teacher Rex, and he is the most seasoned veteran of this cast, having appeared in 33 films. He had a lot of fun with this part, prancing around in his American flag “bad-boy” pants, and pushing around the local kids while taking their money.
Rex: People, I am Rex, founder of the Rex Kwan Do self-defense system! After just one week with me in my dojo, you will be prepared to defend yourself with the strength of a grizzly, the reflexes of a puma, and the wisdom of a man.
And there was the lovely Shondrella Avery appearing as Kip’s cyber-love La Fawnduh. She is one hot mama, and she seems to like short skinny white dudes. When Kip boards the bus, bandana on his head, glasses in his pocket, suitcases in his hands, leaving home for the first time, we realize the movie has come full circle, and now is a fairy tale. It has become a feel-good paean for the little people, the plethora of oddballs, a lyrical piece of geek poetry that would decidedly land on its feet in the teeth of, and despite adversity; to the eternal chagrin of the characters in power.
I had approached this film skeptically, not being sure how I would react or relate, but it won me over. It was not just another dumb comedy that would disintegrate two points off my intelligence quotient just for sitting through it. Rather, it was a fine little film, large on ambition, about several eccentric characters that I came to care about; like responding to the characters in THE STATION AGENT.
I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars.
Teacher, Actor, Writer.