As deadpan as its affectless protagonist, breakout indie phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite is like a Roschach test of viewer empathy. What do we make of Napoleon (inscrutable Jon Heder), this painfully, even defiantly introverted misfit from the sticks of Idaho, who never makes eye contact and masks social dysfunction behind constant but meaningless, impotent irritation?
Do we cheerfully join with Napoleon’s callous peers in laughing at this mega-loser and feeling better about our own comparative well-adjustedness? Or do we laugh at Napoleon but feel guilty about it? Or do we find the film’s invitation to laugh mean-spirited and unfunny? Or do we somehow identify or sympathize with this emotionally stunted loner?
Above all, what do we make of the climactic scene in which we and his peers see a dramatically different side of Napoleon? Is the film an 80-minute geek show with a tacked-on feel-good ending to assuage our consciences? Or is it 80 minutes of setup for one sublime finale?
Either conclusion is probably justifiable. Speaking for myself, while I respect the concerns of those who find the movie cruel, I have to side with those who find it ultimately endearing. Maybe it has to do with my own high school experience having been a little more like Napoleon’s than I care to remember. Maybe it’s Napoleon’s odd friendship with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student who’s almost as much of a social zero as Napoleon, but who, lacking Napoleon’s frustrations or obsessions, seems more well-adjusted. Maybe it’s little scenes like that inexplicable milk-tasting event, but somehow I feel that director Jared Hess and his co-writer Jerusha Hess are honestly fond of Napoleon. And whether or not they are, I am, so there.
It’s got problems. The awkward triangle of Napoleon, Pedro, and Deb (Tina Majorino) works well enough, but a subplot involving Napoleon’s milquetoast brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and an Internet girlfriend named LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery) tries for a payoff that feels less than honest. Kip’s not as complex a character as Napoleon, and LaFawnduh, when she finally shows up, isn’t given a personality as such, but suffice to say their relationship requires too much suspension of disbelief and not enough reward to justify making the effort.
In the end, as odd as anything in Napoleon Dynamite is the sheer fact that a PG-rated low-key high-school comedy by young Mormon graduates of Brigham Young University became the breakout indie phenomenon of 2004. Napoleon makes an odd poster boy for indie hip, but there it is. It’s not for all tastes, but Napoleon Dynamite earns its loyal following.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.