NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004): More like Dyno-Mutt


As a studied, quasi-documentary look at a junior-high nerd, Napoleon Dynamite is fascinating. Whether this movie is (as it’s been touted to be) a comedy is another matter altogether. The movie made me slack-jawed, as though I was watching an escalating traffic accident.

The movie concerns the title character (played by where-did-they-get-this-kid Jon Heder) whose family consists of:

* a grandmother who indifferently raises him (when she’s not out racing dune buggies);

* an older brother whose idea of a budding romance is to spend hours conversing with a woman in an Internet chat room; and

* a macho-wannabe uncle, who spends his days revisiting his almost-glory days of high school football from 20 years ago.

These fictional misfits are much like the real family shown in the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans. You feel that, though they might not be guilty of the crimes for which they’re accused, they’re certainly guilty of something.

The rest of the story takes place at Napoleon’s school, where he is constantly bullied and put upon. He actually has an erstwhile girlfriend–socially lacking, but quietly charming–but he’s too self-absorbed to pick up on this. By chance, the fates give him a friend (actually a fellow outcast), whom Napoleon tries to help become student body president.

The movie’s attempts at comedy are mostly an excuse to laugh at what an inept geek Napoleon is. (You don’t want to know where he stores his tater-tots from lunch.) There isn’t the slightest attempt to make Napoleon likable, or to help us to better understand his viewpoint. Like most movies about nerds, this movie believes that Napoleon can’t be a real person unless he becomes as popular as the dreariest kids at his school. (Bill Gates might have a few things to tell this kid.)

If you buy that viewpoint, then the movie ends on an upbeat note. But never in my years of movie-going has such a so-called happy ending been bodily forced upon me. It’s as though a creationist spent 80 minutes explaining his theses and then ended by saying, “But you know what? It’s really all about monkeys.”

The movie’s only (minor) chuckles come from “Drew Carey Show’s” Diedrich Bader as an airheaded defense instructor. As for Jon Heder, it might be that he’s a really brilliant actor, or maybe this role is all he has in him. I don’t know, and I don’t care. Based on the experience this movie gave me, I hope I never see Heder again as long as I live.

Comedies are meant to make you laugh, either with their characters or at them. Napoleon Dynamite had the astounding effect of making me do neither.

Napoleon Dynamite is rated PG for mild language and double-entendres.

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