Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Movie: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Early this summer, Jared Hess’ Sundance favorite turned up at my neighborhood theater. I figured I’d get to it eventually, but other movies – and, you know, life – took precedence. I was all set to place it in my Netflix queue.

Only the movie never went away. It became the smash indie hit of the year, thanks in part to MTV’s promotional efforts. Every Friday I’d pass the theater and Jon Heder’s face would still be snarling out at me from the poster. When October rolled around with NAPOLEON showing no signs of leaving, I threw in the towel. Genuine phee-noms are rare. You have to check them out when they come along.

The movie’s a deadpan comedy with no huge laughs but a strange, lived-in vibe of recognition. Every high school has a kid like Napoleon, who’s obsessed with martial arts and drawing, who invariably lives on the wrong side of the tracks, who’s so used to being picked on that he responds to innocent questions with belligerence. I know that kid almost too well. (Not that said kid was me. For one thing, I can’t draw.) I’ve never seen a movie about him before. Heder never slips in his characterization, wearing the armor of Napoleon’s surliness from start to finish.

The scenes with Napoleon’s neutered man-child of a brother (Aaron Ruell) belong in a different movie. But Hess makes excellent use of Jon Gries as Uncle Rico. And Tina Majorino, the little girl from WATERWORLD, has moved into teen roles without losing her preternatural calm or her flawless timing.

The theater was packed with repeat viewers when I saw the movie, many of them boys around Napoleon’s age. I’m sure some of them are laughing at him and not with him, but I’m going to look on the bright side for once. For whatever reason, they’ve embraced a movie that celebrates an outcast and gives him a hard-won happy ending. Good for them.

Miscellaneous: Links

More goodies from the Kissinger transcripts. Jack Valenti asks the good doctor to help Kirk Douglas get a visa for China, then gives him pointers on speaking at a dinner for Robert Evans. Many thanks to Slate’s Press Box guru Jack Shafer for pointing me toward these.

I could say something about the passing of Rodney Dangerfield, the last of the old-school comedians. But why not let Rodney do the talking himself?