Napoleon Dynamite is one the great cinematic celebrations of the geek. Two decades prior, the nerds took their revenge on the world. Napoleon just wanted to find his place in it.
One of 2004’s sleeper hits, the film made a breakout star of Jon Heder (something he’s completely failed to capitalise on since, with disappointing performances in films like Blades Of Glory and School For Scoundrels) and gave director Jared Hass the opportunity to film the Jack Black-helmed Nacho Libre.
Napoleon Dynamite is the story of a geek of the same name who lives with his brother Kip and Grandma (substituted by Uncle Rico when she injures herself in a dune buggy riding accident) in the backwater town of Preston, Idaho. The film isn’t really about anything in particular, more a look into the lives of this oddball family. Napoleon is muddling his way through school, and life, Kip is acquainting himself with the ladies in Internet chat rooms and Uncle Rico is permanently stuck in the early eighties. But then so is the rest of the town.
One of the film’s most notable qualities is the way it revels in the decade that fashion forgot. All the recognisable icons of the 80s are here – the top loading video player, Uncle Rico’s camper van, and the marvellously over-the-top clothes. We know it’s set in the modern day – not least because of Kip’s obsession with chat rooms – and the fact that this town seems to be a decade or three behind the rest of us only adds to its quirky, offbeat charms.
The opening title sequence of the film sets the tone. Leading viewers through Napoleon’s personal contents and drawings, it’s an independent and inventive means of setting the seeds of what is to come.
The soundtrack is also perfectly realised. Starting off with the deliciously lo-fi We’re Going To Be Friends by The White Stripes and then incorporating some truly inspired keyboard musak, plus the prerequisite 80s classic (a re-imagining of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time) is an obvious highlight.
Of course, this is Heder’s film. His creation is simply awesome. His quirks and mannerisms are so fully realised, this is method acting at its finest. Every utterance of ‘Gawd’, every time he speaks with eyes half shut, every time he breathes in that frankly disturbing manner of his, it only serves to remind you of what a tour de force performance this truly is. He’s ably supported of course, with Aaron Ruell’s performance as Kip deserving special mention. His transformation from know-it-all older brother, to cage-fighting wannabe, to pimp daddy is hilarious to watch.
Many will remember Napoleon Dynamite chiefly for the infamous scene where Napoleon performs a dance routine to Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat for his friend Pedro’s school President nomination. Indeed, it’s off the back off this that you would have found students everywhere wearing ‘Vote For Pedro’ T-shirts. For me though, the genius of the film lies in its more subtle moments. Its celebration of the geek in moments such as watching Napoleon’s joy at playing swingball by himself and his boastful, and rather dubious, claims (‘a gang wanted me join them as I’m pretty good with a bowstaff’).
Away from the geek laughs and quirky moments, it also contains several well-observed views on the horrors of school life. As someone who never really felt he fit in at school himself, watching Napoleon, Pedro and Deb mumble and stumble their way through school holds painfully true at times. All the elements are there. The school bullies. The cool kids. The geeks who don’t care about not fitting in. The ones who just want to sink into the background. The school dance in particular brings back a lot of memories for me and watching Napoleon’s own insecurities confirms how spot on this movie is in capturing the awkwardness of youth. To his credit, Napoleon seems oblivious to all the ill at ease self-consciousness of such proceedings but it nonetheless recaptures such moments effortlessly.
Napoleon Dynamite ultimately became a cult comedy hit because, like all the best comedies, the laughs just keep on coming. It has a really high gag rate for an independent comedy effort, without the benefits of a solid gold comedy star or a bunch of writers to dish out the laughs. If you’ve never seen it, rent it out, reminisce about your own schooldays and celebrate the geek in all of us.