A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG, 88 mins.

Napoleon Dynamite: Jon Heder / Uncle Rico: Jon Gries / Pedro: Efren Ramirez / Kip: Aaron Ruell / Deb: Tina Majorino  / Summer: Haylie Duff / Ilene: Ellen Dubin / Trisha: Emily Kennard / Rex: Diedrich Bader

Directed by Jared Hess / Written by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess

There are the great nerds that revel in their petty nerdom, and then there is Napoleon Dynamite, who gives geekiness a whole new twisted and perverted edge. 

Just how much of a dweeb is he?  Well, there's a small scene in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE where a young girl named Deb approaches him during a quiet time at school recess while he's drawing.  After she asks what he's drawing, he very matter-of-factly replies, “It’s a liger. It's pretty much my favorite animal.  It's like a lion and a tiger mixed... bred for its skills in magic.”  There's also a moment in it where he asks his friend if he's going to finish his tasty tater tots, to which Napoleon takes them, puts them in his pant’s pocket, and later eats them in class. 

Yes, Napoleon is such a gifted nerd that he’s even given to wild, baseless, and completely unsubstantiated claims, the kind that don’t ever appear to be taken seriously by even the most naïve person.  When a friend asks what he did during the summer, he responds that he went “hunting for Wolverines” with his grandfather.  When he's further asked if he killed any, he sarcastically replies, “Yeah, like 50 of ‘em, with my 12 gauge, after they attacked my cousin!” 

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, this year’s comedy that sparkled at the Sundance Film Festival, is a film that’s awfully hard to hate and, ironically awfully hard to really relate to and like.  There have been many movies about the socially awkward that have a great deal of problems being accepted by their peers, for whatever reasons.  Nerds have come in all shapes and sizes in the cinema.  There was Ferris Bueller, whose own sardonic wit, charm, and remarkable intelligence and inventiveness could pass him as a geek of sorts; he was cool, collected, independent, resourceful, and very likeable.  Anthony Michael Hall’s prep in THE BREAKFAST CLUB was funny and shy, a character that we could empathize with instantly.  Corey Haim in LUCAS, one of the very best films about a geek, made his character smart and sympathetic.   Hell, even the social rejects in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, despite their uber-nerdness, were hard not to cheer for.  Napoleon Dynamite is kind of a different anti-social personality altogether, and I think that’s part of the film’s ultimate downfall.   

Mr. Dynamite, as played by Jon Herder, is a tall and extremely thin young teenager with hair that looks like it has not been combed in a lifetime (it's an ungainly red afro).  He’s a one note personality, with voice that’s as grating as a female bodybuilder that’s taken too much of the juice.  He rarely smiles, has great empathy for his own condition of loneliness, and says things that are so enormously dumb that we often have to wonder if his own intelligence is worthy of nerd status.  He often complains of things that deserve our ridicule, like when he comments that his school locker is so full that he can’t fit his kung fu training equipment in it anymore, or when he further complains that his “girlfriend” can’t come with him to the prom because she’s stuck in her town doing a modeling gig.  When a friend asks to see a photo, he gleefully responds by pulling out one of her.  It’s clearly a picture cut out from a glamour magazine.  For his spare time, Napoleon engages in cow milk tasting, being able to tell farmers what the cow ate before it was milked.  “This one was eating from an onion patch,” he proudly proclaims at one point. 

Yes, the problem with Dynamite is that we never laugh with him, but at him all the way through the film.  Actually, our laughter kind of gives way to scorn and ridicule, often to the point where you want to grab Napoleon by the arms, shake him, and yell at him that, “Time Machines don’t exist, pant’s pockets are no place for leftover food, you're clearly not dating a super model, you're not an expert in martial arts, you're not a trained Wolverine exterminator, and Ligers sure as hell don’t exist!”  Napoleon kind of comes across as more creepy than cute and loveable, like one of those 30-year-old recluses that never passed high school, but still walks the halls in search of fun.   

Yes, there are many laughs in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, but we never really root for this hapless SOB.  For a kid that occupies the lowest end of a convoluted Darwinian social pecking order, we should really invest more in Napoleon to succeed that we do in the film.  We have more contempt of this character than we do have respect, and even the most insane bizarre things that Napoleon does only harnesses our stupefied state.  He often does things that invite being mocked, and he's such a passive instrument of self-destruction; does he not realize that he’s doing things that only hurt him more?  He’s not an uplifting or a sympathetic figure, just a remote and sad one.  Rooting for a film nerd should not take effort at all.  Napoleon takes great pains to not even successfully force you to like him. 

The film is a series of weakly connected episodes from the very beginning, without a real clear and delineated plot.  Napoleon lives outside of town in a residence that would make trailer park trash envious.  He lives with his grandmother and his equally nerdy brother named Kip (Aaron Ruell).  Kip spends what seems to be his entire day on chart rooms on the computer, so much that he meets a girl on there.  “How serious is it,” asks Napoleon.  “Serious,” Kip responds, “so serious that we chat for three to four hours now!”   

Unfortunately for the two, their grandmother gets hurt in dune buggy accident which turns their lives upside down with the arrival of their Uncle Rico (Jon Cries), who himself is not so much a nerd as he is a grade A loser.  Rico gives the words cluelessness and stupidity a whole new level of meaning.  In his spare time he goes out into fields, sets up a camera on a tripod, and films himself replaying football memories of his past (“This is clearly the worst video ever made,” Napoleon correctly labels).  When he's not doing that, he pitifully makes asides about being a sports star in his 1982 high school that went from bad to worse.  He still seems to have his same haircut, clothes, and manner of speech from that early part of the decade.   He, like Napoleon, makes claims he knows he can’t back up (“Did ya know I could throw a football right over them mountains?”).  When he has other amounts of free time, Rico sells, of all things, pills for breast enlargement door-to-door.  Oh, when he’s not filming videos of himself, contemplating yesterday, and making stupid claims of his sporting prowess, he dabbles in time travel, and actually buys a time machine online at eBay.  Napoleon thinks that he's stupid for buying something that clearly is fake, but when he himself tries it and he only serves to electrocute himself, he scornfully states, “This is clearly defective, you should take it back and get a new one!” 

If home life sucked for Napoleon, then his school life is no better.  He's often cruelly picked on, physically and mentally.  He does manage to find one friend in Pedro (Elfren Ramirez), the only Latino in what seems like a hundred miles of the school.  Napoleon even manages to think that he would make a great class president.  Why?  Because, as he feels, Pedro has, “a sweet bike” and is really good at “hooking up with chicks,” not to mention that he’s the only one at school “who has a mustache.” 

There may seem like an area of redemption for the film at this point with the two school misfits, but the screenplay never really gives them anything great to do.  Napoleon, while trying to win Pedro’s election for him, manages to develop a crush on a girl named Deb, but he fails so miserably on his quest that she ends up going to the prom with Pedro himself.  Oh, he does try to woe another girl for the dance in a plan that seems doomed from the start.  He draws a portrait of her that makes her look like Lon Chaney in drag, and when he gives it to her he very proudly explains, “I spent like 3 hours on the shading on your upper lip alone.” 

There are some very, very funny moments in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, some which I laughed harder than I did anytime at any film from 2004.  I especially liked one moment where Pedro and Napoleon try to see how much airtime Pedro’s new bike can get off a ramp.  There's another equally funny part where Rico demonstrates his accurate passing arm with a pork chop that has somewhat painful results for Napoleon.  I laughed extremely hard when Napoleon clearly demonstrates why Kip has “like the worst reflexes of all-time”.  Diedrich Bader makes a hilarious cameo as a martial arts trainer who has founded his own school, where Napoleon goes for one class (“I'm Rex, founder of the Rex Kwan Do self-defense system!  After one week with me in my dojo, you'll be prepared to defend yourself with the strength of a grizzly, the reflexes of a puma, and the wisdom of a man!”).  Finally, one moment where Napoleon finds a cheap video on dancing, 80’s style, at a local flee market makes it painfully clear where he’ll eventually use his skills in a later scene that may surprise you. 

Yet, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE is a film of strange contradictions.  It’s a very funny movie and made me laugh, but it really has no sense of story or plot and never made me truly like any of its characters.  Kip, Napoleon, and Rico are such low end rejects that they defy the very physics of nerdity, if there was such a thing.  The film is largely a shaken together set of episodes that feel, when you don’t consider the sum of their parts, nothing more than humorous Saturday Night Live sketches.  Ultimately, you never really gather much admiration for Napoleon, and its kind of disconcerting when you laugh and mock him as much as the bulling jocks do in the film.  In a film that should inspire our ultimate sympathizes in the nerd, the audience should never be empathetic with the bad guys.   Then again, maybe Napoleon is kind of cool; after all, he was considered for membership for one of the school’s gangs because he “was pretty good with a bowstaff.”  

Yeah, right!

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