Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, released in 2004, is funny. Really, really funny. It is a character-based independent film detailing the adventures of the socially inept, bullied, eponymous hero, Napoleon, played by Jon Heder. The plot could be mistaken for a kitchen-sink drama directed by Mike Leigh. There were even rumours that it started life as a serious film, but looking at Napoleon himself, such a sublime comic creation, it would have been mocked. That the filmmakers saw what comedy gold they had on their hands is merely good judgement.
The plot goes something like this: one teenage boy, Napoleon, ever the subject of torment from his uncle, brother, and schoolmates, meets a friend, in Pedro (Efren Ramirez), gets a girlfriend, and orchestrates his friend’s School President Campaign, through the medium of dance. He has many adventures along the way, but t’s not exactly a plot-based film, focusing instead on character moments, as well as letting the supporting cast have their own moments. It’s the stuff of a thousand previous films, but it’s done in such a way that you almost look at it with new eyes.
From the ace opening title credits, it’s clear we’re in indie country. The string-based soundtrack, and low-budget production designs tell us this. You should also be able to tell whether this is your kind of comedy from the opening shot -a close-up of the protagonist’s face, looking at nothing in particular. He, like most of Adam Sandler’s comic creations, is the kind of person to laugh at. If, at the sight of him, you find him unfunny, or think it would be cruel to laugh at him even if you find him funny, leave the cinema. Most of the comedy is at his expense, and it seems like he is on the cusp of laughing at himself most of the time.
The film has a weird charm. We spend so long laughing at the character, that by the end we feel almost bonded to him. Yet the characters around him are just as odd, none more than Napoleon’s only friend Pedro, who has gained something of a cult following (I have seen several ‘Vote For Pedro’ t-shirts around, a level of fan dedication that is rare among films these days). There could even be a whole film devoted to how on earth his slightly less nerdy brother ‘Kip’ has managed to pull a lady so far out of his league.
As a film, it’s not exactly Citizen Kane. The lighting, cinematography, and all ‘film-y’ aspects are perfunctory, but this is not that kind of movie. I have a weakness for films which are primarily character and dialogue based, and this is one of those. But such is the level of banter within that it should satisfy even the weakest attention spans. The director is clearly never going to direct Transformers 17, so why should he pretend? The action highlight comes when Napoleon falls of his bike.
The film has gained a cult following, and the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a very good reception. Even now, in 2011, people still talk about it, in the same league as such cult classics as Anchorman and In The Loop. Napoleon struck a chord, with audiences, and the film was actually a minor hit when it came out, taking far more than it’s modest budget.
People will always see a love story, and behind the dialogue, unique characters, and almost violently funny ending, this is a love story between Napoleon and Deb (Tina Majorino), the only slightly more socially accepted female version of Napoleon. They go about their relationship in a way quite unlike any other, for example, when Napoleon gives her a truly horrendous drawing (choice dialogue: ‘It took me like, three hours to do the shading on your upper lip), all she can do is sit there, while her mother tells her how sweet Napoleon is. On cringe-worthy sequence sees Napoleon go to the prom with her, and that scene shares a similar awkwardness. We’ve never seen an on-screen couple quite like this before.
The closest thing we have to this film now is the antics of Flight Of The Conchords, the New Zealand-based indie duo. You should catch this film, and be part of the cult. It’s a cracker.
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