Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

 

“His Own Sweet Idaho

 

            The term nerd has been revived to full vogue in recent weeks because of the appeal of the lanky oddball, ironically named Napoleon Dynamite, in Jared and Jerusha Hess’s film of the same name.  However, all past definitions have to give way to something new if the clowning of Jon Heder as the small-town Idaho senior student is to fall under that heading.  Our local newspaper reviewer uses the following subjective expression in his blurb: “File this under ‘Nerd.’”  Lately, it says: “Picture him next to the word “nerd” in the dictionary.”  If one wants to be hip and flippant, just about any put-down cliché--geek, weirdo, schlep, clod or bozo--will do. It’s getting quite obvious how critics feed off one another in generalizing and thumbing up or down a movie these days.  Napoleon Dynamite--a nerd movie?  This is far too facile for such a successful film.  The Hesses must be snickering up their sleeves at what they’ve pulled off.  Actually, Napoleon Dynamite is no more a stereotypical nerd than the gray costumed beast in Donnie Darko is a “bunny.” 

 

            It’s risky (and perhaps nerdy in the common sense of one who is bookish and private) to open a film review with definitions of a slang term.  However, it is important to me in discussing this film to see just how off-base some critics are with their pop terms to toss out the clichéd nerd as an adequate characterization of the curious, original person that Heder represents in the tall, thin, unconscious hippie clown that Napoleon is.  On top, this so-uncool guy wears his ginger hair curled up naturally in a pseudo-Afro, and, on his feet, he sports moon boots even though the snows of spring have long passed and sumer-is-a-cumin-in.  How much more sui generis does one have to be? Only in the loosest general sense is this character a nerd or a geek.  [If you want a decent treatment of the meanings and history of the term , surprise yourself and consult The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 1179b.]

 

            As laid back as Napoleon is, he’s a phantasmagoria of expressive gestures.  Perhaps one has to put the Gulp down and stop munching head-down in the bucket of greasy popcorn to notice the subtle features of Heder’s performance.  A second viewing certainly helps one to appreciate the mannerisms.  The very breathing of this fellow is affective comedy: he sucks air through his teeth and sighs or puffs it out of a small, open, pursed mouth, sometimes out of boredom, other times out of contempt.  He’s impulsive, quick to snap, but always he has a point to make.  For example, when a younger school-bus rider innocently asks Napoleon what he is going to do that day, the impatient senior spits out that he’ll do whatever he feels like doing.   Truly Napoleon does what he wants to do, what he feels like doing, and setting a reputation has nothing to do with his thought or manners.  A real original, more existential than any 60s hippie could have hoped to be.  “Do what ya wanna do / Go where you’re going to / Think for yourself “ etc. etc.  Napoleon doesn’t have a mother to dictate his behavior or dress.  Nor did John Lennon.  John Lennon would have sympathized with this honest-to-goodness freak. And I mean freak in the best sense of an irregular, non-conformist person. 

 

            When Roger Ebert calls Spidy’s Peter Parker persona a “nerdy student,” I think one gets the connotation at work here in typifying the term, although Parker remains admirable in his ego-less, disciplined ways at school or in regular life, as far as I’m concerned.  Why does our popular culture put down the student or out-of-sync individual?  The indolent lay-about and fad dresser with an expensive disheveled hair-do, who’s probably cloddish as clay in the brain, why is such an icon, from Vogue to Rolling Stone, the persona of advertising we’re intended to imitate or admire?  Ebert seems to have despised Napoleon Dynamite as a film creation for superficial reasons, giving it the insulting mark of half a star.  His dislike had much to do with laughing at stupid behavior.  Also, he probably went sour on the strange name alone: “Ebert’s First Law of Funny names:  ‘In a movie the use of funny names is a certain sign of desperation.’” (See his Sun-Times review of Yahoo Serious (1989) on IMDb.)   Now that Dynamite has exploded into popularity, lately re-released with an expanded ending--a wedding scene--I hope that Ebert the arbiter, film czar of American taste, will think back once in a while how imperceptive and disinterested he must have been to overlook the unusual appeal of Napoleon’s comic character, not to mention those of his family and clique of friends.  Perhaps the grand poobah’s interest in films doesn’t jive with those of the hungry public’s tastes any longer.

 

As for the traditional idea of “nerd,” Napoleon’s 32-year-old brother, Kip, is much more true to the typical traits of the techy nerd we have come to know from the “Nerds” films.  With the round face of a 20-year-old, he sports a slim mustache and his hair is slicked down with hair tonic; clad in polo shirts buttoned to the neck and Bermuda shorts, he’s shod in Oxfords and draws his dark, formal length socks tight up the calf.  No stylish self-image awareness at work here. Like Napoleon, Kip is out of sync, an original of his own making. Yet, he is, in the vulgar sense, a nerd, cultivating tastes from the past, staying with his own fashion sense.  His social ineptness results from homebody existence through a fixation on technological gadgetry or peculiar interests. Kip’s a computer surfer and chat-room addict, very proud of his pursuits in cyberspace, having seduced a woman to be his on-line love.  And, by God, she comes to visit him in Preston, Idaho.

 

            If one takes time to observe, it’s not so bizarre that Napoleon Dynamite attracts.  It is catching on with viewers of all ages at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema, an arts house used to drawing mostly a middle-aged patronage hungry for indies.  The rollicking zaniness of Napoleon is perhaps best appreciated for its full range of humor by the school-age movie-goers who are going to see it in droves, but everyone likes it for something.  It is partly for its good, clean comedic fun, the quirky ways of a circus-like troupe of characters in highway-bypassed rural Idaho.  The main characters are indeed marginalized in the school class system, because they are not striving to be up-to-date and with-it.  Nevertheless, they move progressively just like the “regular” cliques through the routines of high school situations (classroom shenanigans, lunchroom intrigues, dating games for prom night and student presidential campaigns).  The first 30 minutes of the film is a skit-ology, in which the characters are introduced, but the major narrative string develops around the last two activities in the foregoing series.  It is far from the clever machinations of the high schoolers in Election (1999), starring dour Matthew Broderick and super-snotty Reese Witherspoon.  How starkly the narrative scenes of Dynamite’s school contrast with those of the intense, infernal  life of the affluent urban schools, such as in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001 and Director’s Cut 2004) and Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), a most depressing and pathetic portrayal of adolescent or juvenile meanness.  Worse, remember that pre-Columbine prophecy, Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989), once thought merely a cynical satire of high school social life.  So vastly different, Napoleon Dynamite is a low-key paean to simplicity and unconscious “idiocy”; i.e. the state in which people can endure by living in their own peculiar child-like worlds, in minds known to themselves alone.  Like Don Quixote, such people live a little behind the times, not having caught on to modern ego-power.  The child is still intact in them; they do not conform to the utilitarian conception of human existence.  Perhaps it’s been too long since we’ve been reminded of those long-lost Arcadian days.  Movies have been too busy keeping up with current trends and have forgotten what people once enjoyed.  The Idahoan Hesses, 24-year-olds, fresh out of Provo’s BYU film school, and their skillful editor and peer, Jeremy Coon, also of BYU, have struck a hidden vein. 

 

              Sure, there’s a dash of normal social realism in Napoleon.  It’s beautifully weird in its real-time torpid pacing, its action literally slowing the viewer’s pulse to the beat of life in out-of-the-way Preston Idaho. Napoleon’s Hispanic friend, Pedro (Efren Ramirez, Delivering Milo, The Race), lives in a state of hypnotic somnambulism, as if taking a siesta in a Don Juan dream world.  Even so, romantic desires and political ambitions are calmly percolating in his normal, laid-back mind.  The story and the characters’ high jinks gently massage the soul into warm sensibility, striking many untapped points of the funny bone, pushing the heart to willing acceptance of Napoleon’s ways. It has much more in common with the entertainment appreciative audiences felt in American Splendor (2003), gradually growing accustomed to the warped tempo, sympathizing with its authentic comic hero, the cynical, self-deprecating Harvey Pekar.  I think people find refreshing the simple authenticity of characters who are contending with rites of passage from innocence and selflessness, taking their waking slowly, enjoying their neuroses and pathologies while searching for better natures through which to emerge into self-knowledge than those of the workaholic, breadwinning drones who represent the so-called successful, responsible grown-ups.

 

            The Preston Idaho setting is a misfit town, magically populated by young people whose parents are mostly nonexistent and scarcely intrusive as antagonists. Only the parents of one girl play a small plot-motivating scene or two. Napoleon’s own quirky family members tend to play his antagonists.  Napoleon’s grandmother and guardian (Sandy Martin) is largely absent since she is hospitalized early on from a crash while racing her dune-buggy over a roller-coaster landscape.  No knowledge of the Dynamite mother and father is revealed.  Although Napoleon and his brother Kip appear mature enough to take care of themselves, their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, Northfork, Jackpot) is called in temporarily to supervise them. He’s another Quixote lost in dreams of the past. Narcissistically fixated on his high-school football-jock reputation of a decade past, Rico’s arrested development makes him ridiculously unfit as a caretaker.  Adding another comic element, his role presents the major break of point of view limited mainly to Napoleon and his circle.  It is through Rico’s sales experiences one glimpses the life of Preston’s adults.  Mostly he peddles kitchen wares with a wink and a smile, attempting to wheedle his handsome self into sex-starved homemakers’ knickers, eventually progressing more obviously in that direction by selling “snake oil” to help women enhance their bosoms.  With the teenage girls, Rico knows his distance, but he’s unaware of his double-entendres : “If you gals need any [breast enhancers], come see me.” Almost every major character is comically innocent and likeable in this filmic cartoon.

 

            It may not be important to pick apart essentials of movie-making in critiquing this artful comedy; however, it is quite difficult to peg the era in which the action takes place.  Kip’s computer has been mentioned, indicating the late ‘80s or early ‘90s when on-line dial-up service was purchased so much per minute.  Rico uses a camcorder to make VHS videos and he has a cell phone in his out-of-town camper, which brings the time closer to mid-nineties.  Otherwise the town and school exhibit none of the intrusive technologies of the nineties. Matter of fact, the chicken farm where Napoleon takes a job could have been in the Depression Era.  For the story events and characters’ behaviors, the temporal setting could just as well be the era of the late sixties or seventies.  Hearing Cindy Lauper’s hit “Time after Time” as a slow dance on prom night only gives another ambiguous clue to time.  The amateur synthesizer music in the soundtrack reminded me of the hits of Dave “Baby” Cortez’s organ noodling of the late 1950s. (Anyone remember “The Happy Organ”?)  Deb (Tina Majorino) wears crimped hair and a Cindy Lauper clownish ponytail on the side of her head.  Wasn’t this the eighties?  Oh, well.   Film-makers are growing quite adept at inserting dress styles and music that fits, no matter how un-chronological.  Also they are clever at muting the technological nuisances of our age, or else they deliberately set their story before the electronic innovations that have screwed up our freedom to enjoy uninterrupted daily activities. We moviegoers are becoming ever more accustomed to accepting anachronisms, coincidences, and ambiguous ingredients which are typical departures from modernist principles of story-telling and film-narrative towards those laissez-faire motifs of postmodernistic mythologizing.  Enjoying the humor of Napoleon Dynamite, I asked my critical self: Who really cares about the exact era of the story?  Who really knows what goes on in Preston Idaho--or anyplace in Idaho for that matter?

 

            Some critics have drawn attention to other comedic figures of the past and present in trying to particularize Napoleon’s comic charisma.  In mentioning hip comics, such as Yahoo Serious of Young Einstein (1989) and Reckless Kelly (1993), one can only remark on the over-the-top tom-foolery of those clownish failures.  The character Carrot Top of Scott Thompson is another failed jokester, who seems better suited to 30-second commercial advertising for AT&T than as a mime or comic in extended scenes; his one-dimensional conceit gets old very quickly.  Going further back to the outlandish gestures and forced routines of young Jerry Lewis, even in his most effective solo slapstick comedies such as The Delicate Delinquent (1958) and The Nutty Professor (1963) one cannot deny the extravagance of Lewis to push his clowning to absurd limits way beyond funny.  It’s the obviousness of the guile that sets these other comic characters apart from Jon Heder’s guileless, under-the-radar Napoleon Dynamite.  He’s more acceptable because of his artless comic caricature, developed minimally by the Hesses through a series of naturalistic skits, every one subtly devised to draw some sort of audience laughter.

 

            Comedic films such as this one are interesting for the waves of different kinds of laughter that rise from various groups of viewers. Young high-schoolers at my viewing saw the early antics as ridiculous, perhaps stupid—e.g. when Napoleon drops a toy figure on a string from the window at the rear of the bus and we see it getting mutilated in the dusty road.  What’s this?--the maliciousness of an infantile mind?  Some laughed, but not everyone in unison. Pedro is so super-cool, the timing of his deadpan performance garners knowing chuckles. The couple sitting behind me in the Grand Cinema asked one another aloud why the audience kept laughing at every dumb thing Napoleon did.  I also wondered why they laughed when he was suckered into ridicule, and especially what was funny about his enjoyment of a solo tetherball fling.  This allowed some odd physical gyrations, but nothing to guffaw at.  Napoleon’s bored and disgruntled sucking sigh seemed to please someone each time he got ticked off.  Without doubt, the phases of laughter are successfully developmental.  As in the picaresque quixotic pattern, the laughter began as mocking and derisive at strikingly silly behaviors in the introductory scenes, then changed in time to charitable, humorous amusement as Napoleon and his clique enjoy small triumphs over their smug rivals of the consciously affluent class groups.  Recently, Heder was introduced to ecstatic, screaming teenagers at the “Teen Choice Awards” and got to play tetherball on stage with Nicole Richie of “Simple Life.”  He was, however, introduced as “Napoleon Dynamite” not as actor Jon Heder.  Clown persona not the actor—Hmm. What does this imply?   

 

This simple film obviously has tapped into nostalgia held in reserve through these depressing years of the 21st century by the public who are discovering its delight and spreading the word about Dynamite.  Rather than filing the film under the rubric “Nerd,” one can be much more sensible and classify it as a Terrific Comedy. 

 

“My Own Sweet Utah

 

            When I came to America in 1958 at age 14, my family settled in a farming community in northern Utah just below the Idaho border. At that time, Perry Como, a crooner of big band fame, still had a TV show and by some luck had a hit record called “Magic Moments” and “Catch a Falling Star”--very old-fashioned stuff.  Simultaneously, another singer, Jackie Wilson, a black guy with a huge, pomaded, conked hair-do, wearing a formal, natty, polished-cotton suit and tie, sang an upbeat rock n’ roll hit, “Lonely Teardrops,” while he periodically fell into full splits and spun around like a top.  One hell of a juxtaposition of styles at the top of the pop charts!  As a new immigrant, I could hardly understand the attraction of the old “square,” Mr. Como, the static manikin, but the spinning, acrobatic rocker was a magic man.  By no account was the flashy black singer considered weird or oddball, by me or other teens.

 

In that Utah milieu, I wore shorts, since I’d never owned a pair of long trousers beforehand, and some kids did think I was unusual in my “Bermuda shorts,” but, since it was summer, no one slammed me as a “bozo,” “nincompoop” or “idiot.”  Besides that, I practiced my rock n’ roll moves to Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Band, a British group playing American folk music based on old Southern talking blues and rearranged Led Belly songs.  Clinging for a year or more to my English tastes and habits, I could have been stigmatized for those queer traits but wasn’t.  My choices of subjects for sketching were circus animals, birds of the hedgerows, and wild flowers, which I practiced drawing constantly.  Some evenings, like Mayberry’s Opie, I walked a couple of miles to fish and caught planted trout in a reservoir.  Napoleon does stuff like that.  For me, Napoleon Dynamite touched on many memories of good old days.  Maybe there’s a time-zone of halcyon days circling around northern Utah and southern Idaho where folk hold on to quaint freedoms for longer than is normal in our generally fast-paced, ever-changing culture and Napoleon Dynamite had the good fortune to grow up there.  He’s a lucky devil and, as I was reminded, so was I.

 

Oh, by the way, my wife and I were married in Preston, Idaho in 1965.

 


I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars.
David Gilmour