Honestly? I had no emotional connection to this film. I still don’t know what I think. I thought all the performances were great. I thought the idea was interesting, the way it was shot interesting, and the music was neat. I think I enjoyed it – heaven knows everyone around me in the theatre did. Maybe I was empathizing with someone so hopelessly clueless about his own freakishness and I couldn’t quite pull away and laugh at him. The filmmakers obviously love and hate this character, but I couldn’t hate someone whose life was so self-determinedly miserable. It’s a great showcase of Schadenfreude so if that’s your thing, run, don’t walk to the movie.
Jon Heder plays the titular misfit as the most perplexing, monotone freak, with a flair for genius in his acting. You can’t hate him (even though you no doubt would have picked on him yourself in high school), you can’t even feel sorry for some of the injustices that he weathers because he is such a total pill and he brings most of it on himself just by being so aggressively obnoxious. At the same time, you applaud him sticking to his personality guns and being who he is and damn everyone else who doesn’t get it. No matter what, Heder’s performance is one you won’t soon forget. To describe it is to diminish him. Even when he is enthusiastic about something, he seems inconvenienced. His disgust with the world around him is only matched by the disgust his classmates have for him. The major focus of the film is just watching this cat navigate through episodes of victimhood at his whitebread Idaho high school.
He is supported mainly by his equally (but differently) bizarre brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Kip is a great foil to Napoleon, and their dependence on their grandmother (barely touched upon) adds layers to their roles. Jon Gries as their uncle Rico proves that the weirdness is in the blood, whatever it is, and he is hilarious in a way that Anchorman should have been. The rest of the cast floats in and out but these three anchor the slice-of-so-called-life.
You can’t really call Napoleon Dynamite a slice of life. Cowriters Jared and Jershua Hess (Jared directing) don’t concern themselves much with a story arc, they mostly showcase Napoleon. When is it set? The clothes, the technology, swing between 1979 and 2000, they reminisce about back in 1982, but appear not to have lived through that era yet. Chat rooms and handheld tape recorders intermingle to make the film timeless and even more disjointed.
The pleasure comes from the aimlessness of the brothers and when the loose ends do wrap up, we’re almost sorry Napoleon has less to complain about. Napoleon is a liar, but not in a malevolent way. He just wants, as the tag line says, to prove he’s got nothing to prove. By being himself, and defying expectations of learning anything about how his personality makes his life harder, he negotiates a place in his life for himself, and it’s an interesting journey. But see Garden State first.
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 6/11/04 limited
Time in minutes 82
Director Jared Hess
Studio Fox Searchlight