Napoleon Dynamite (2004) dir. Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majerino
The influence of “Napoleon Dynamite” on popular cinema can not be exaggerated. The film helped popularize the geek-chic trend in cinema, TV and fashion. And I’m sure Hollywood agent’s desks are still piled high with Napoleon Dynamite-like comedy scripts. It popped up at Sundance in 2004, made a splash and virtually caught fire and blazed its way into indie cinema history. It’s “Rushmore” for dummies.
Jared Hess and his spouse/co-writer have morphed and stretched the high school genre to aggrandize the most impudent narcissistic geek-nerds ever imagined. Most high school films play off the stereotypical characters – nerds, jocks, pot-heads, goths. And then there’s Napoleon Dynamite, an under achiever who fails in both academics and social stratas. What Napoleon lacks in behavioural skills he makes up for in confidence.
Trying to explain the plot is an exercise in futility, as the film is essentially made up of a series of quirky characters doing really fucked up shit and taking it all very very seriously. The poker-faced deadpan idiocy escalates to obscene levels, and climaxes with the unbelievable dance sequence. But it’s the warm-hearted romantic closure that still surprises me and completes the full arc of Napoleon’s character.
“Napoleon Dynamite” works because of a few key and essential elements. First, Jon Heder. It’s that rare occasion when the character is defined by the actor. Jon Heder is Napoleon Dynamite and Napoleon Dynamite is Jon Heder. Much like, say, Ace Venture and Jim Carrey the film would not exist without Jon Heder.
Second, the details. Every frame is filled with a cornucopia of loserdom. I can only assume co-writers Jared and Jerusha Hess sat down before writing the screenplay and brainstormed the most loser-ish things about high school. And so, Hess’s background is his foreground as he jams his frames with everything on his list. This perspective is aided with a creative and colour production design and the usual quirky wideangle cinematography.
Third, the film exists without time or place. It’s a style mash-up of the worst fashion mistakes from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The film is from Napoleon’s point of view – his skewed outlook of the world. Hess shows great skill as a director by staying within this bubble the entire film. Ie. Napoleon’s atrocious 1980’s lunar boots are never referenced. Every ridiculous outfit or action or dance is accepted because this is Napoleon world, of which he is king.
Lastly, the film has a heart. Sure, it’s Napoleon’s point of view but he remains an accessible character because his goals are from the real world. The film ends with a cute romantic gesture as Napoleon finally finds someone who will play tetherball with him. Though “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts will be filed under 00’s fad trivia, the film should not. It stands up to repeated viewings long after the hype.
Here’s the very clever opening credits: