"I caught you a delicious bass," proclaims Napoleon Dynamite, by way of flirting with a flushed classmate. And when fresh fish fails to woo them, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is quick to offer crude drawings of mythical creatures or even an impromptu demonstration of his tetherball skills. A gawky social outcast, prone to exasperated shrugs and cries of "What the flip do you think?" in response to even the most benign questions, Napoleon seems almost willfully intent on making his own high school experience as unpleasant as possible.
A hit at Sundance, Napoleon Dynamite is coasting into theaters on a typhoon of hype. In an unprecedented move, its distributor has added a five-minute extra scene—typically the kind of thing you’d find as a DVD extra—as a treat for smaller-market audiences. Originally a short film entitled Peluca, the spectacle of Heder’s gangly frame and orange ‘fro (he towers over his classmates like a chess-club Bill Walton) make it easy to see why husband-and-wife writing team Josh and Jerusha Hess couldn’t wait to spend some more time with their protagonist. Unfortunately, the thin premise is stretched to the breaking point at feature length, and even Heder’s tour de spaz performance can’t completely redeem a film that feels calculated for maximum eccentricity.
Stylistically, Napoleon Dynamite seems stuck in some kitschy 80’s mode. John Swihart’s score is a Casio homage to the cheesy synth soundtracks of that decade, and everything from crimped hair to top-loading VCRs get trotted out for out bemusement. Napoleon and his love interest Deb (Tina Majorino) are both outfitted like thrift-store aliens from the planet 80s. When Napoleon appears in moonboots, elastic-waistband pants and a teal, wolf-emblazoned t-shirt, it’s clear there hasn’t been a movie character of such social-bullseye proportions since Heather Matarazzo’s Weiner-Dog in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Like the character in the Todd Solondz film, Napoleon chooses to return the world’s hostility in kind. But Hess lacks the razor-sharp social wit that make Solondz’ films so profoundly discomfiting; in its place he seems to have swallowed Wes Anderson’s precious deadpan awkwardness whole. Hess’ characters have the tics and absurd non-sequitur communication habits of the Tenenbaum family albeit with a farmland coarseness that’s more suited to flyover country. With a hero who looks like a combination of Bill Haverchuck from Freaks and Geeks crossed with Beavis, and whose chores include feeding the family llama, Hess seeks nothing less than to build the perfect misfit.
Napoleon is a fantastic creation, but every buffoon must have his straight-man, and so it is that his only friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is actually the film’s dead(-pan) center. As the new kid in school, Pedro suffers Napoleon’s bizarre offer of friendship gladly and the two set about lining up dates for a school dance and launching a campaign for Pedro’s election as student body president. Out of his league but undeterred (and hilariously almost-disqualified for innocently smashing a pinata designed to look like his opponent), Pedro steals the movie in the moment he loosens his bolo tie after bombing in his presidential election speech. Not to be outdone, Napoleon saves the day for him in truly jaw-dropping fashion.
With a bunch of go-nowhere plot strands and characters just one dimension removed from cartoons, Napoleon Dynamite is easier to enjoy than to champion. And while it runs out of steam near the end, it never runs out of charm, thanks to Jon Heder’s narcoleptic zeal as the title character. It’s a very funny movie, although it’s not always clear whether or not the jokes are at Napoleon’s expense.