Napoleon Dynamite (newcomer Jon Heder) is a teenage outcast living an isolated life in Idaho. Harassed by bullies, and loathed by his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), Napoleon keeps himself busy with solo games of tetherball, punctuating every sentence with the word "sweet," hating the popular kids, and angrily feeding his llama. When his new best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) decides to run for class president of their high school, Napoleon goes all out to support him, while nursing his crush on a Glamour Shots photographer named Deb (child actress Tina Majorino, from "Waterworld" and "Corrina, Corrina," now all grown up).
There's an unspoken rule about comedies: somehow, somewhere the audience must care about the characters in some infinitesimal way. "Napoleon Dynamite" (IMDb listing) is a comedy that has lots of characters, but not one drop of genuine feeling to its name. It's the latest in manufactured geek-chic, ripping off the static wonderment of Wes Anderson, the sympathetic teenage humiliation of Paul Feig's "Freaks and Geeks," and the pointless nostalgia viper's nest of VH1's, "I Love the 80s." Yet, even after siphoning the fumes off of three highly successful inspirations (it also pilfers brazenly from Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse"), "Dynamite" is an end product that is so deadening, unfunny, and ultimately loathsome, one might start to worry about the mental health of people who actually find this movie funny.
Written and directed by Jared Hess (along with wife Jerusha Hess), "Napoleon Dynamite" is the filmmaker's ode to self-conscious nerdom and life in the barren, hick-infested Midwest. Napoleon is a slack-jawed creation who wears moonboots, draws "Ligars" in his Trapper Keeper, adores fantasy films and lying, and is tired of adults getting in his way. Laughing yet? His brother, Kip, spends all day in chat rooms, speaks suspiciously like Butt-Head, and may or may not be gay. Hilarious? Uncle Rico is a loser who pines for his 1982 football days, wears a wig, buys a time machine off the Internet, and sells Tupperware door to door. Hee-hee? These are the jokes, people. This is the contrived material that is attempting to pass for entertainment in "Napoleon Dynamite."
Hess films all this nonsense with an expressionless glee, allowing the slack-jawed stillness of the characters and the setting to help sell the oddities of the minutia on display here. Do we laugh with, or at, Napoleon and his world? I don't know, and neither does Hess. Set against the Wes Andersonesque phantom zone where a film can open with a White Stripes song, feature the Internet, yet everything else is right out of 1985 (including a head-slapping "A-Team" homage that makes no sense in the larger scheme of things), it's tough to see anything of interest or gravity in "Dynamite." At least with Anderson's films the audience gets a sense of community; that the artificial strangeness of the production quests to breathe life into the characters, not amateurishly underline them like Hess does. The filmmaker is lost in his agonizingly ironic world, only succeeding at conveying the ugliness of nostalgia and the most inconsequential and exhausted of targets (take that, jocks!).
You can feel Hess doesn't have a clue what he's doing when the film eventually resorts to useless gross out gags (look at Napoleon drink raw eggs!), tired urban jokes (Kip meets up with his African-American Internet love and starts dressing and acting like a thug), and finally, just simply having Napoleon do a funny dance in front of the camera. Good lord. "Napoleon Dynamite" is wafer-thin the entire journey, producing not a single laugh, feeling, or delight. It's an empty, affected experience, and a five-minute joke stretched out to 85 of the most soul-sucking, higher-power-questioning minutes found in a movie this year. Funny? Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Filmfodder Grade: F