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Napoleon Dynamite | Review

Outkasts

Sundance gem provides a couple of good chuckles but doesn’t hit the humor ball out of the park.

Take the typical cruel world of any American high-school, sprinkle on some Todd Solondz pessimism and for the final touch – add the type of narcissism found in Election and you’ve got the makings of the world’s first cloning of both Beavis and Butt-Head. Cloaked in a low-budget production value, director/co-writer Jared Hess’ highly sought-after Sundance nugget provides a handful of corny, mean-spirited jokes that grow into one mundane pleasure.

Idaho is the potato capital of the world. In Napoleon Dynamite the Midwest state is shown as a breeding ground for real-life potato-heads. Littering the screen with ultra-geek sheik is the awkwardly named protagonist played by first time actor Jon Heder whose Napoleon is the most awkward-looking screen personality since that thing in Goonies. With a cherry-red fro, slightly chapped lips and a disregard for style this young man is so irritatingly annoying that you kind of wish cruelty upon him. His band of misfit friends and family add insult to injury. Exaggeratedly idiotic portraits come in the form of an older chat-room-oholic brother, an Uncle fixated with a the year he had the most promise as a human and his new friend and finally the new kid in school with facial hair named Pedro with who he shares very little except their likening in girls and a desire to become school president.

Napoleon Dynamite is a purposely mean-spirited journey, one that rarely comes in defense of its one-dimensional characters. Trying on a Solondz type of outfit, Hess clunks together a bunch of episodes that reveal his victims as annoyingly unapproachable characters, instead of injured souls not knowing how to get out of their predicament we get a pet lama who deserves a nicer owner. The easily targeted characters are designed to provide as many deadpan comedy moments as possible, but after the first dozen-or-so humiliations the comedy spontaneously combusts. With an 80’s track and unfortunate costume design, Hess delivers us to the threshold of full geekdom, unfortunately this is one nerd where we don’t end up caring about his fate.

At about a half a million production price-tag, it will certainly make Indie filmmakers consider the possibilities. With Napoleon Dynamite Jared Hess might have found himself in the same homeroom of genial comedies as the Solondz’s, Payne’s and Wes Anderson’s, but one kind of feels that this rookie feature merits certain comparisons to such names because of the style of presentation but not the overall praise for it.

Rating 2.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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