Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“Vote for Pedro.” I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t immediately get that reference.
“Napoleon Dynamite” is certainly a strange film. I tend to refer to it as the “anti-teen-movie” or the “anti-coming-of-age-movie.” It’s a slice of life centered around some particularly strange characters who live in worlds all their own. These people are so off-putting that they’re the very reason people either love it or hate it. If you can’t tell by the Verdict rating, I belong to the former group.
The title character is a high-school teenager who would be classified as a “nerd” due to his outward appearance (thick glasses, odd fashion sense, and hair that must’ve taken hours to look bad), deadpan monotone, and asocial behavior, but you might be far off. This kid, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), wouldn’t even fit in with the other nerds at school because he’s so repellent and aggressively obnoxious. This isn’t one of those high-school dramas that portray teenage outcasts as tragic figures; we see more than enough of Napoleon to realize he probably deserves to be an outsider.
And yes, he is the protagonist of “Napoleon Dynamite,” and in any other movie, he would be one of the worst movie characters in history. But with this film, it strangely works, because the film itself is so low-key and with a good amount of biting satire that it’s easy for me to admire the decisions director-writer Jared Hess and his wife, co-writer Jerusha Hess, make with it and their characters. They have conveyed a tone in this film that really works because everything is underplayed and so is everyone. Let me put it this way—the comedy in “Napoleon Dynamite” works not because the actors are playing their parts or the material for laughs but because they aren’t, and as the movie goes, their characters grow on us. (State a quote from this movie, and there’s no doubt many people won’t know who or what you’re referencing.)
Who else in this group of strange characters can we count off? Well, there’s Napoleon’s older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who is almost as asocial as he is. He still lives with Napoleon and their grandmother, and his daily life revolves around an Internet Chat Room. (Their grandmother gets very little screen time, but I’d like to know more about her, especially considering what we see of her social life.) Then there’s Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a pathetic 30-something ex-jock who constantly lives in the past and hopes to relive his glory days of playing football; after Grandma is hospitalized, Uncle Rico stays at the house with Napoleon and Kip (anything to get away from his trailer), and he and Kip go into business as door-to-door salesmen, selling the most bizarre products.
Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is Napoleon’s only friend. He’s the new kid in school and has as much trouble fitting in as Napoleon. What’s so strange about their friendship is that they are often together and exchange words with each other, but they rarely show any emotion whatsoever. Then there’s Deb (Tina Majorino), a shy, awkward girl who has a crush on Napoleon for…reasons, I’m sure. Pedro asks her to the upcoming dance, so Napoleon, having been stood up by his date, has to cut in for one dance.
There isn’t much that happens in “Napoleon Dynamite.” The closest thing it has to a story is introduced in the back half, in which Napoleon and Pedro start a campaign for Pedro to become Class President, with Napoleon as Pedro’s campaign manager. His opponent is a stuck-up popular girl, Summer (Haylie Duff), who Pedro once asked to the dance. (By the way, I love how she responds.) But even that doesn’t have much of a focus, nor does the buildup to the dance or hardly anything else. It just leads to a payoff where Napoleon ultimately gains some kind of victory (though not on the account of anything you might expect, keeping in consistency). “Napoleon Dynamite” is mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters, particularly the sadsack loser Napoleon. Strangely enough, there are even side-spots which we’re not even sure why they’re there in the first place. For example, Napoleon and Kip visit a steroid-built dojo owner named Rex (Diedrich Bader), who shares his unorthodox advice on how to defend yourself. What does this have to do with anything? I’ve never figured this out, but it just adds to the “stuff-happens” element that the film offers.
The film doesn’t force us to hate these characters, because it doesn’t necessarily mock or even hate them. It shows its heart near the end and we can appreciate any hint of redemption these people might have in their lives. The film isn’t about that, mind you, but it does show a bit of hope seeping underneath the surface.
As someone who is generally a fan of coming-of-age/slice-of-life movies, I find “Napoleon Dynamite” to be very funny and even more admirable in the way they go against what this type of film usually offers and delivers. Maybe that’s why people seem to be split on it. Some people look at it like I did—a charming, unusual comedy with amusingly disconcerting characters. Others have seen it a different way, because they’re turned off by the film’s characters and tone, they don’t find it funny, and/or they expected something different and more generic. The former group has turned the film into a cult classic. I’m happy to call myself a part of that “cult.”