A defiant cadre of misfits take their place among the high school jocks and low riders of Preston, Idaho. When his grandmother (Sandy Martin, "One Night at McCool's') is hospitalized after an dirt bike riding accident, one such teen, despite the agonizing obstacles placed in his way by con man Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, "Northfork"), gets his best friend elected school president and gets the girl. His name is "Napoleon Dynamite."
This goofy American original works largely due to the determined weirdness of star Jon Heder, who creates a truly unique character. Heder is such a master of comic timing and physical ability that it will be intriguing to see how and if his talents will be utilized by other filmmakers. Cowriting brothers Jerusha and Jared (who also directed) Hess have used their own hometown to good effect, but their story weakens whenever focus strays away from their titular creation.
We're introduced to the carrot-fro'ed, ski boot wearing Napoleon as he boards the school bus. 'What are you doing today?' asks a much younger rider. 'Anything I want!' Napoleon retorts aggressively before tossing a plastic action man on a string out the window to drag along behind the bus. Napoleon protects himself from more averagely normal students with a cocoon of stories so bizarre they might be true, like how he spent his summer in Alaska with his uncle hunting wolverines, but he still weakens from high school's onslaught, calling brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) to pick him up or at least bring him his chapstick. Kip demurs, too busy at the moment making nachos before a session cruising chat rooms for love.
When Uncle Rico arrives to tend to the boys (Napoleon's a senior and Kip much older), his money-making schemes, which include selling bust enlargements, embarrass Napoleon in front of his friends and the two frequently engage in violent exchanges (somehow the Hess brothers make Rico flinging a steak in Napoleon's face funny). But Rico and Kip's adventures (Kip romances the unlikely Lafawnda (Shondrella Avery) from Detroit) aren't as amusing as Napoleon's adventures with Pedro (Efren Ramirez, "Jury Duty"), a Mexican transfer student who thinks he can romance the school's most popular girl, Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff, sister of Hilary), by baking her a cake. Tina Majorino ("Waterworld") provides the film's geeky heart as Deb, an aspiring portrait photographer who wears her hair in one ponytail on the side of her head and who quietly yearns for Napoleon.
The brother's screenplay largely works, although they can't resist side trips with characters like local 'Rex Kwan Do' owner Rex (Diedrich Bader) that don't pay off. These threads and non sequiturs like the Dynamites' pet llama reek of homage to Preston experiences which probably play funnier to the natives.
First time cinematographer Munn Powell keeps it simple, usually keeping his subject dead center in the frame for a deadpan look which complements the film's humor, and costumer designer Jerusha Hess (it's all in the family) adds visual interest with Napoleon's parade of novelty tees and Deb's awkward attempts at style. John Swihart's cheesy score is dead right for the proceedings.
"Napoleon Dynamite" spurs interest in more Idahoan tales from the Hess family, but it's the slack jawed, straight-armed Heder whose star is really born. His brilliant climatic show stopper followed by a geeky sweet school yard denouement make for a dynamite ending.
Napoleon (Jon Heder) is one of the stranger residents of Preston, Idaho with his unruly mop of red hair, thick glasses, sullen attitude and penchant for moon boots. He lives with his adventurous grandma (Sandy Martin) and a 31-year-old live-at-home brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who surfs the Internet looking for chicks. The redhead has problems fitting in at school but when a new kid, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), comes to town, things change for “Napoleon Dynamite.”
First time helmer Jared Hess, working with a script co-written with Jerusha Hess, has created a no-budget, low-tech little film that has some interesting moments and one very good thing about it – the title character. Jon Heder’s Napoleon is as unlikely a hero figure as I have ever seen. He’s the penultimate geek with interests in medieval warriors and drawing. He lacks social skills and grace but, still, there is an honest freshness in the character that keeps you interested in his goings on.
There isn’t much of a story in “Napoleon Dynamite.” Nothing really happens, as a matter of fact, until about the halfway mark. Even at that point, there is little tension except who will win the hotly contested class president’s race between soft spoken outsider Pedro and his main competition for office, the school’s head babe, Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff). The film is a series of slice-of-life moments as we watch Napoleon deal with new friendship, girls (especially shy but provocative Deb (Tina Majorino) who has eyes for our hero), bullies, martial arts and dance.
The “story” also follows other members of the Dynamite family. Nerdy Kip envisions himself as a bit of a bon vivant of the Internet and begins carrying on a long distance romance with LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery). The diminutive older brother eventually invites his remote lover to visit and, on her arrival, she shakes the unprepared Kip right down to his toes. Also arriving on the scene is Uncle Rico (John Gries), a former high school football star who tries to regain his past sporting glory and is always scheming for a get rich quick deal. He and Kip become the local distributors for “Crupperware” and proceed to try to sell to every woman in town.
The story lines that do no involve Napoleon tend to distract rather than entertain. As I watched Kip’s romantic hijinxs or Uncle Rico’s conniving ways I simply wanted to get back to Napoleon and his numerous plights, fights and successes. Helmer Hess does an adequate job in marshalling his youthful cast but, without Jon Heder, there would be little to offer. Heder presence, alone, is worth the price of admission.
“Napoleon Dynamite” plays like a demented after school special that exists in rural America but feels like it came from outer space. Napoleon comes across, at first, as an anti-hero on the outside looking in. By the end of the film, the geek becomes an idol as he develops all the right moves and helps his friend win the election. I can’t exactly say that you like the title character by the end, but you certainly gain some respect for him. I give it a B-
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