Friday, July 7, 2006

Cult Classic Corner: Napoleon Dynamite

Director: Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efram Ramirez, Tina Majornino, Aaron Ruell
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG

***1/2 (out of ****)

You either hate it or love it. There's no in between. That's the best way to describe Napoleon Dynamite, the 2004 comedy made for only $400,000 that went on to make over $84 million and become one of the biggest cult classics of the decade. It's not hard to see why it's so polarizing. The film contains all the hallmarks of a cult classic: offbeat and memorable characters, quotable dialogue, no real plot line, and a weird cinematic experience that invites (almost requires) repeated viewings. It's become especially popular among young people who, maybe frighteningly, relate to the alienation of the title character

This isn't a movie for all tastes but those who have embraced it know how special it is. Some say no one could possibly act, talk or look like the characters in this movie. Those people have obviously never been in high school. High school is hell for the insanely goofy looking and acting Napoleon (Jon Heder), but he hardly knows it, or if he does, he doesn't care. He looks half-asleep most of the time. He lives with his grandmother and brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who looks like he's well into his thirties and claims Naploean's jealous of him "chatting online with babes all day." Enter Uncle Rico (Jonathan Gries) who comes to live with them after grandma has a biking accident. His ridiculous behavior delivers maybe the biggest laughs of the movie.

Meanwhile, two friends arrive in Napoleon's life, the well-mustachioed transfer student Pedro (Efran Ramirez) and shy girl Deb (Tina Majornino), who Napoleon clearly has a crush on, but because of his limited social skills, he has problems doing anything about it. Napoleon's dedication to getting Pedro elected class president is really the film's centerpiece, but it's the little details we remember. Like Uncle Rico's sales scams to sell twenty piece Tupperware sets and natural breast enhancers door to door. Or his attempts to build a time machine to go back to his football glory years of 1982. Come to think of it everyone dresses like it's 1982. How about Napoleon's ridiculous, yet strangely enjoyable auditorium dance performance? There are too many memorable moments in this film to even name.

Why I think it all mostly works is the complete and total engulfment of the filmmakers and actors into these characters. I can imagine reading the script for this and not thinking it's very funny, but onscreen everything clicks. The actors deliver their lines so dryly and with such understated subtlety it's almost as if they want us to take them seriously. This just makes it funnier. The characters in the movie, especially the title one, aren't particularly likable at all, yet by the end we like them all almost in spite of ourselves. They're so goofy and relatable to people we know we almost don't have a choice. They're character types but the actors invest more into them than that with their performance, and as a result they become unforgettable.

Jon Heder literally inhabits Napoleon to the point that I don't think I could ever watch him in another role and believe it. There's even some kind of attempt to give Napoleon redemption at the end, but not too much. After all, the brilliance of Napoleon Dynamite is that it's always winking at us and making it clear it's in on the joke.