"Quirky Outsider Comedy"
What You Need To Know:
This movie is a character study. The election is the core of the plot, but more time is spent watching the characters’ mundane conversations. The quirks that are supposed to texture the characters and make them real seem cheap and artificial. Instead of sympathizing with them, the audience laughs at Napoleon and his strange family. They are not living, breathing characters, rather they are conduits for jokes. The movie parades weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but there is no greater truth in it. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE is a mediocre movie trying to cash in on the successes of quiet, outsider comedies over the past few years. Although mostly inoffensive, it just isn’t very funny.
(Ro, C, L, V, M) Light Romantic worldview in which emotional gratification solves problems, with some Christian iconography and lightly redemptive premise in which people are bettered by loving others; two obscenities and no profanities; comedic violence with boy thrown against locker, brothers slap each other, cow shot off-screen, and people lightly shocked by faulty machine; and, characters wildly exaggerate stories, and teenager disrespects his uncle.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE is a quirky, outsider comedy built from the tradition of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and GHOST WORLD. It has generated lots of buzz billing it a “sleeper hit,” but this attempt at subtle comedy is neither too subtle nor funny.
The first rule of these kinds of comedies is that everything is played deadpan, so you will not find the broad, over-the-top acting of many mainstream comedies. Jon Heder plays Napoleon, a chronically awkward teenager who is isolated in his private world. He speaks slowly, disjointedly, seeming almost asleep. He makes friends with a similarly catatonic teenager, and together they lodge a campaign for student body president.
This movie is a character study. The election is the core of the plot, but more time is spent watching the characters’ mundane conversations. Shallow depictions make this aspect more frustrating than interesting, however.
If you remember Dudley, the character that Bill Murray studied in TENENBAUMS, then you have some notion of Napoleon Dynamite. The two look, speak and function very similarly. What made that movie such a rich and rewarding character study was that the quirks helped explain the people, so the eccentricities were carefully crafted details, not cheap jokes. The quirks in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE are cheap, artificial and make the audience laugh at the characters.
Therefore, Napoleon and his family are not living, breathing characters; instead, they are conduits for jokes. The movie parades pedantic weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and there is no greater truth in it.
An aside: there are two exclamatory profanities in the movie, but, interestingly, they seem to be dubbed in, and the actors mouths do not appear to be forming those words. Without this trace amount of foul language, the movie would have had almost no objectionable content and probably garnered a PG rating. Distributor Fox Searchlight and producer MTV might have added the two profanities during post-production to secure a PG-13 rating, which would be more likely to lure the “hip” audience they are seeking. This is another troubling sign that the movie is not a serious attempt at filmmaking.
Don’t get excited about the hype for NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. It is a mediocre movie trying to cash in on the successes of quiet, outsider comedies over the past few years. Although mostly inoffensive, it just isn’t very funny, and it totally fails to warm the audience like THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, which it seemingly aspires to be.