Napoleon Dynamite

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/20/04 20:15:35

"So painfully unfunny, it just might ruin your day."
1 stars (Sucks)

Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s loved by every single person on the planet - except me. And I’m not talking the “Gee, I didn’t think ‘Seabiscuit’ was as good as they said” kind. I’m talking the “Sweet gravy, you actually think this flaming bag of poo is good? Are you high or something?” kind. Titles like “The Sixth Sense,” “Moulin Rouge!,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” just to name a few mysteriously popular crapfests that made me want to punch the screen.

We can now add to that list “Napoleon Dynamite.” The comedy (if that’s what they’re calling it) has been getting some major buzz as an indie must-see. Friends were calling it one of the funniest movies they’d ever seen. Critics were hailing it as genius. To which I respond, yet again, “Sweet gravy, you actually think this flaming bag of poo is good? Are you high or something?”

The film is like a horrible joke that just keeps going despite itself, the teller completely unaware of its sheer awfulness. It’s a one-joke movie, and that joke is this: the lead character is a loser. We sadly don’t get much more than this, mainly because director/co-writer Jared Hess and star Jon Heder do little more than let the title character have goofy hair, bad clothes, and a dopey voice. I wanted to call him a “Saturday Night Live” character and compare him to the kinds of one-note movies that those repeat roles eventually get, but no, that’d be too unfair to “The Ladies Man” and “It’s Pat.” Napoleon Dynamite, the character, is more like something off of “MAD TV,” which is meant as an insult to both.

What bothers me about the film is that Hess seems to have a grasp on what could be funny, yet he never bothers to put in any effort. Consider the first shot of the film: a plate of tater tots. By itself, a plate of tater tots is not funny. The name, the shape, the sheer idea of tater tots might be funny if presented correctly, but Hess doesn’t bother with any of that. He merely shows us tots, then asks us to laugh. “Look, everybody! Tater tots! Hilarious!” Not really.

That’s the whole movie, right there. Napoleon is the rough sketch of a comic character, and in this movie, we get only ideas to what kind of complete loser he could be. Hess and company fail to flesh him out any further, content with the mere suggestion of a caricature, assuming that such a sketch would be enough. It isn’t. (You could complain that Napoleon is a wholly unlikable character, but then, he’s not trying to be; what irks me is that in his unlikability, there’s simply nothing of any interest, comical or otherwise. His off-putting persona only makes him - and, by extention, the film itself - endlessly grating.) This character is the indie film equivalent of, say, Adam Sandler’s “Little Nicky” - one character idea, repeated badly. And the secondary characters run equally flat, meaning there’s no solace in the supporting cast.

More problems. It would seem that the film would work best (or, at least, better) had Hess gone further either toward a more complex, realistic character (see “Welcome To the Dollhouse,” for example) or toward a more outlandish exaggeration of the clueless idiot (“Dumb and Dumber,” perhaps). At times, it begins to lean one way or the other, then retreats to its safe zone of “boy, it’s fun to watch ol’ pal Heder clown around with that haircut.” Yawn.

And then, if that were not enough, the finale comes, asking us in one final scene to have an emotional reaction for characters in which we have never been asked to invest before. The entire film plays at a cold distance, letting us laugh at Napoleon and his friends, never caring what happens - and then, suddenly, When In Rome’s “The Promise” fades up on the soundtrack, and now we’re automatically supposed to get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Can’t happen that way, fellas. Can’t just dump it on us in two minutes and get the reaction you want. In order to have an emotionally charged ending, we need to care for the people involved, which we are never required to do. It’s a horrible, clumsy ending, which, to be fair, fits with the horrible, clumsy everything else.

Oh, there is one more bit of clumsiness, hidden so the lucky don’t have to deal with it. Many comedies include a little post-credits cookie, a quick stinger to treat those who stuck around with one last gag. In “Napoleon Dynamite,” however, this quick stinger stretches on for five agonizing minutes - and feels three times as long. It’s not a cookie, but an entire other scene, one so awkardly played that it manages to top every bad moment that preceded it. Like so much of the film, it probably sounded good as an idea, then fell apart through lousy execution.

There are those who will love this movie. Its attempts at comedy shove forward enough faux-cool that some will see it as actual cool, and if it’s hip it must be good, right? Others may in fact be genuinely entertained by Heder’s characterization. And to them I say congratulations, you’re far more able than I am to keep interest in a failing one-joke premise. Are you high or something?

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