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Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite
Jon Gries as Uncle Rico
Aaron Ruell as Kip
Efren Ramirez as Pedro
Tina Majorino as Deb
Haylie Duff as Summer
Diedrich Bader as Rex
At Idaho's Preston High School, Napoleon Dynamite is the weirdest kid in class with his red afro, strange attire and a penchant for one-man tetherball and drawing mythical creatures. His odd family and the school bullies make his life miserable until he befriends a quiet Mexican boy named Pedro and a shy girl with hobbies as strange as his own. The question is whether Napoleon can rise above his geek status to achieve something great, like getting Pedro elected class president.
The Sundance Film Festival is having a good year. This year's festival has already introduced an impressive array of unique and quirky films, and Jared Hess' Napoleon Dynamite can be added to the list of Sundance discoveries.
Like Mean Girls and Saved!, this is another comedic look at the lives of high school teens, this time from the viewpoint of a rather strange kid from the Pacific Northwest. Napoleon-we assume that is his real name-is a guy out of time and place, living in a world that doesn't appreciate his "skills", which include telling the deficiencies in milk from taste. Determined to be himself, he suffers from the misery of living in a town made up of characters right out of "King of the Hill": his effeminate brother Kip chats online with an Internet sweetie; his womanizing Uncle Rico is a complete loon, stuck in the past with a football win that remains the high point of his life. When the two of them start working on a get-rich-quick door-to-door sales scam involving Tupperware, it's a bit too much for Napoleon.
Napoleon Dynamite may be one of this year's great oddball character, like something from a "Saturday Night Live" or "SCTV" sketch, and possibly one of the strangest movie characters since Jason Schwartzman's compulsive geek in Wes Anderson's Rushmore. This odd protagonist is brought to life by Jon Heder, a talented new discovery, who brings just the right amount of boredom and deadpan delivery to make it seem like he really is the normal one in the crazy world around him. His character doesn't necessarily evolve, as much as the viewer begins to buy into his delusions of grandeur as they develop over the course of the movie. His proclamations that something is "sweet!" or someone is a "frickin' idiot" becomes almost endearing after awhile, threatening to become instant catch phrases. Heder is also a talented physical comedian, making every pratfall work that much better, and though you're always laughing at him rather than with him, he makes the part and the movie work.
Rico (Jon Gries) and Kip (Aaron Ruell), steal many of the scenes with their over-the-top performances, and though you would never believe that these three could possibly be related, it makes Napoleon's situation more outrageous and his frustration more deserved. Some of the scenes between the three will have you crying with laughter--Rico's "time machine" that he bought online, Kip's finally meeting his sweetie and going through a startling transformation-and the physical comedy is excellent.
Despite the abundance of laughs, Napoleon Dynamite gets a bit tepid after awhile due to its banal dialogue and stiff performances. Much of this may be intentional to emphasize the humor of the slow, lazy town, but the majority of the characters are base stereotypes. Napoleon's friend Pedro is the worst of the lot and could be potentially offensive to Mexicans, while Tina Majorina's Deb is barely awake in most of her scenes. Hillary Duff's sister Haylie plays the obligatory popular cheerleader type who runs against Pedro for class president and treats the outcasts with suitable scorn, but that part of the story is played down. Blink and you may miss "Third Rock from the Sun" star Diedrich Bader in a small and forgettable role as an inept martial arts instructor, who is completely unnecessary to the script. None of these might be considered great "performances" as much as small town stereotypes thrown into odd situations.
The movie's originality and weirdness is charming at first, but once it gets into a set pattern, it's not nearly as surprising or entertaining. Too often, it turns its back on the intelligence and cleverness of similar movies in favor of cheap laughs. Most of the humor comes from throwing Napoleon into a number of awkward situations to see how he deals with them, and essentially, the movie is a bunch of vignettes with a minimal overlaying story. There are a lot of funny ideas in play, but the whole thing is a bit hit or miss. For every visual gag that get laughs, there are two more that don't work. Many of the situations are far too outlandish to seem real.
The biggest shame is that the movie resorts to the "win them over" performance ending that has been used in every "outcast" movie from Revenge of the Nerds to About a Boy. At first, Napoleon's climactic dance routine is amusing, but the humor is short-lived and the reaction of the school, immediately accepting him due to his dance "skills" is so contrived and unbelievable that it ruins any enjoyment of the usual "weird guys wins them over" ending.
The Bottom Line:
Napoleon Dynamite, the movie, is a weird and often hilariously funny movie, and the same can be said about Napoleon Dynamite, the person, thanks to Jon Heder's entertaining performance. The lack of a cohesive story and the disjointed way the segments are assembled lessens the impact when compared to some of the more clever high school movies. Still, if you were the awkward outsider in high school, the movie will take you back to those days and help you realize that maybe things weren't so bad back then, and that alone is worth more than a few hearty laughs.