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Lara punches a shark, rides a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China, and dives off a skyscraper —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Napoleon Dynamite is a very funny sketch of high school nerds in rural Idaho. Although it is a live-action movie, it plays like a cartoon. It doesn’t have a great plot or believable characters, but its deadpan performances and cinematic sense of humor earn it a strong recommendation.

Hairstyles and Attitudes

Jared Hess masters comic staging 101
Jared Hess masters comic staging 101

Napoleon Dynamite and his 30-year-old brother Kip (Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell) live in their grandmother’s house in rural Idaho. While grandma is out riding dune buggies, Napoleon has to feed the llama as part of his after-school chores.

Napoleon is probably one of the biggest losers at school, with his frizzed hair, half-closed eyes, steel-rimmed oversized glasses, and a lanky frame that he doesn’t quite know how to inhabit (he runs without moving his arms). Endearingly, he’s clueless about it. In his fantasies he’s probably the coolest boy in school. He brags to the jocks about his summer shooting wolverines in Alaska, and his current events presentation is about a Japanese plot to blow up the Loch Ness monster, which the Scots counteract by invoking protective spells. Through it all, Heder never betrays a hint of anything but sincerity.

He’s surrounded by supporting nerds, each with their own unfortunate hairstyles and foibles. Kip has the pocket-protector look offset by a wispy mustache. Napoleon’s friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) shaves his hair off because it’s too hot, then dons a ’70s wig to cover it up with the help of their “glamour photographer” friend Deb (Tina Majorino), who sports a sideways ponytail. Napoleon’s uncle Rico (Jon Gries), trapped in the 1980s by a failed high school football career, comes to look after the boys after grandma gets injured.

Unfortunate Demands of Storytelling

As much as we’d like to just watch these characters, movies demand a plot and a conflict, and Hess complies. Kip meets a girl on-line, La Fawnduh (Shondrella Avery), from Detroit. Pedro throws his hat into the ring for class president. Deb develops a crush on Pedro. And Napoleon scores a date with one of the cool girls (whose mother, led to believe that Napoleon is a “special” boy in need of a friend his age, insists on the date).

Once the characters are pigeonholed into their respective conflicts, the movie demands a climax and a resolution. And at this point, why not? The fun of watching these characters has waned since the first act. For the movie’s finale, set at an all-school assembly, Napoleon does a dance in support of Pedro’s candidacy. It’s quite a finale, both impressive and funny, particularly from an awkward nerd like Napoleon who just assumes he’s cool.

Lovable Losers

A fellow critic, Walter Chaw, ultimately criticized the movie. He said that unlike other underdog movies, Napoleon Dynamite looks down on its characters. He says the filmmakers put us in the position of the letter-jacketed jocks who mock and abuse them. Although I praise Chaw on his sensitivity, I have to disagree.

Chaw says that by staring into the fourth wall while a jock pushes Napoleon against the lockers (a shot you can see in the trailer), we the audience take the perspective of, and are guilty of pushing him into the locker. I say that Hess discovered a truism about comedy filmmaking: flat, stagey, symmetrical scenes that show the whole body are inherently funny. It’s not a fourth-wall thing but a comedy staging thing.

Chaw also says the movie’s Latinos are caricatures only good for their low-rider car. I say that rather than being blind to them or afraid of their culture, Napoleon accepts their culture at face value and integrates it into his life.

I saw Napoleon not as a loser to be mocked, but as a creative, funny kid — the kind of kid Matt Stone spoke about when interviewed in Bowling for Columbine, the kind of kid who would grow up to be somebody cool, creative, and successful, who could have the last laugh by living well, by not growing up to be a cog as his tormentors seem likely to do.

At the very least, see for yourself. If you feel dirty, cruel, and complicit in mocking Napoleon, then trade your Movie Habit bookmark for Film Freak Central. But I think it’s possible — easy, in fact — to laugh at Napoleon Dynamite without hurting anyone’s feelings.