Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 08, 2004 11:05 am 
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He’s neither – but he’s a brilliant creation

This movie is more clever than it is funny, but it could grow on you, and it’ll have a chance to if it gains cult status. Napoleon is a new idea: a nerd with confidence. It helps that the actor, Jon Heder, despite style-blind clothing and Seventies eyeglasses, is tall and thin and pretty muscular. He moves with such long-legged nerdy swaggering authority that when school bullies bash him into his locker you wonder how they manage it. Napoleon’s final triumph may not be believable, but he’s an excellent physical comic and when he does his fast dancing it’s as awesome as it is silly.

Napoleon’s uncle Rio (Jon Gries), a sleazy ne’er-do-well who wishes he could go back to 1982 when he believes his high school football team would have won the championship if they’d put him in the game; the older brother, Kip (Afron Ruell), who hooks up with a black babe named LaFawnDa (Shondrella Avery) via Internet – are creations as sharp and clear as Napoleon. This movie knows where it’s going from the first frame. Like Napoleon, it’s confident in its nerdiness. In a way, nerdiness isn’t even an issue: Napoleon isn’t going to change and doesn’t want to.

The humor is deadpan; hence the success of conversations between Napoleon and his new Mexican friend Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez), when both stand facing forward exchanging monosyllables.

Napoleon owns power because of his height and agility, but also because of the way he can use buzz words like “sweet,” “gross,” and “idiot” as forcefully as anybody else. What’s nerdy about him? He’s nowhere, man. He’s an out-there geek. His eyes, half hidden behind those big glasses, look blankly into space as he speaks. When have darty unseeing eyes in a movie character been so memorable? He has contempt for the world he inhabits, a rural Midwestern place so remote it doesn’t have a big box store, but he inhabits this world and isn’t about to leave it.

Because he’s not really all that vulnerable, Napoleon Dynamite nurses no lasting resentments, so there can be no revenge or retribution or downfall, and the movie doesn’t “build.” The succession of skits it’s mostly made up of often end unfinished, thus giving a hip postmodern illogic to the story that, I think, will make this a favorite for young people – that is, twenty-somethings – in months and years to come.

Napoleon Dynamite isn’t “about” anything and doesn’t have much of a plot, but it deals with such themes as sexual frustration, get-rich salesman scams (which is where Uncle Rio comes in), and high school popularity contests (the alpha girl Summer [Haylie Duff] vs. Pedro for class president).

The charm of Napoleon Dynamite also lies in the fact that it just focuses on the characters (the actors) and the short skits and doesn’t try too hard. Less is more. There is a Zen consciousness at work here in the way each silly, daily detail is lovingly, patiently looked at and passed on. The unexamined life is not worth living. The silliest, dorkiest life, lovingly examined, is meaningful and potentially hilarious. This is a winner, not a forgettable summer movie. I will leave it to future scholars to analyze its details.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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