Nerds on the high prairie

Is it a screen test from the original Starsky & Hutch television series? No, it's Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), an outsider artist-of-life who doesn't even know what the word "cool" means.

'Napoleon Dynamite' is a delightfully deadpan debut

The joys of Jared Hess' debut film, Napoleon Dynamite, are intense and personal. It's one of those movies that inspires proprietary love: "I found this, it's mine," converts may say. It's also a movie that inspires some easy comparisons that, while not off-base, might imply more than they should.

Napoleon Dynamite is like Rushmore reimagined by Jim Jarmusch; it's the sort of debut one might have expected of Spike Jonze after seeing his video work (especially that amateur dance troupe clip for Fatboy Slim), and before it became clear just how ambitious his experimentation would be with the conventions of narrative feature filmmaking.

All three of those dropped names are fair comparisons, but they also suggest a prodigious talent that may lurk within Hess' cine-soul, but isn't necessarily demonstrated by this film. Napoleon has a kooky heartland primitivism that may or may not reflect a lack of what its hero would refer to as Hess' "skills"; either way, this time around the style perfectly matches the subject, who is something of an outsider artist himself.

The story's eponymous character is the nerd to end all nerds, but that description doesn't quite capture him. There's a defiance in his awkwardness that makes him somehow heroic. When he gets on the school bus in the morning, his back-seat neighbor asks with some awe, "What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" His reply couldn't be more definitive if it were delivered by Lee Marvin, though it would be a whole lot cooler: "Whatever I feel like." He proceeds with a stunt involving a He-Man action figure taking a thrill ride out the bus window, dangling from yards of string.

Napoleon has a rusty Brillo pad for hair, and wears enormous glasses and T-shirts that even the Salvation Army would throw out. He greets the world with a perpetual squint and anxiously pursed lips. The hero of Rushmore attempted, but never quite achieved, a sophistication beyond his years; Napoleon appears not to know what the word "cool" means.

He does understand, though, that there's some sort of schism between him and the world. It pisses him off, and his frustration explodes in exclamations that seem venomless when they emerge from other mouths: "Dang!"; "What the heck are you thinking?!"; "I don't flipping care." The rest of the world may toss off four-letter words as casually as salting french fries, but our man knows the passion even polite cussing was originally intended to convey.

The film, meanwhile, takes everything in without making many emotional commitments. Hess (who wrote the screenplay with his wife) plants a camera somewhere in the middle distance and lets his characters stand there motionless; they project inertia even when they're hatching plans to take over school government or invite the school's chilly hot chick to the prom.

Napoleon befriends a transfer student named Pedro (whose Speedy Gonzalez accent is the first of a couple of odd racial ingredients that, rather than mocking other cultures, just point up the whitebread blandness of Napoleon's rural Idaho environment). Pedro is quiet but has big plans, and his near-doomed aspirations inspire Napoleon to creep slightly out of his shell.

Napoleon Dynamite

Dir. Jared Hess; writ. Jared & Jerusha Hess; feat. Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Diedrich Bader, Tina Majorino, Sandy Martin, Haylie Duff, Trevor Snarr, Shondrella Avery, Bracken Johnson (PG)
It may sound like nothing much happens in Napoleon, but the film doesn't feel that way if you can get in its groove. The comedy isn't all dry chuckles, although there's enough of that at the start that one worries it won't grab viewers by the lapels early enough to get them hooked. I've seen it with two audiences, though, and both ate it up - even the theater full of high school and college students who seemed a bit bored with the clever cafeteria-line credits sequence that goes on too long for MTV tastes.

Viewers who dig Napoleon's willful self-marginalization will find his character engaging enough to anchor a movie by itself, but the Hesses provide some amusing oddballs bobbing around on the sidelines: Napoleon's androgynous older brother, who is intrigued by martial arts but instead finds self-reinvention via the Internet; their unlovable loser uncle, who is stuck in the past; and Tina Majorino's Deb, an outcast in her own right who takes a more timid approach than the protagonist, fleeing Napoleon's doorstep when she meets the slightest resistance.

Fans of Napoleon may await Hess' follow-up with the same eager anxiety as the kid on the school bus: "What are you going to do next time, Jared?" Here's hoping he has something worthy up his sleeve - but, if not, Hess has at least given us a debut worthy of becoming a cult favorite. •

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