With its unprepossessing title one would be forgiven for expecting another familiar Happy Gilmour or Joe Dirt style of mainstream American comedy but this relentlessly ironic comedy is an offbeat delight with some must-see opening credit titles which are very, very nifty). Although recalling in some respects Todd Solondz’s 1997 film Welcome To The Dollhouse, to which this is the male companion piece, as well as the films of Wes Anderson, the film takes an already established manner and bends it in a new direction.,focussing as much on style as content, All these films derive their humour from their characters’ ineptness but the beauty and humour of Napoleon Dynamite is that it is not played that way. The film works not because of its funny set-ups but because it characters are so believably real in their completely ordinary ineptitude
Napoleon, his brother Kip, Uncle Rico and friend Pedro are losers to end all losers. Everything about them is so hopelessly incompetent but they doggedly keep playing against the odds. Napoleon tries to find a girl to take to the high school dance, Kip spends most of his time talking to “babes” in internet chat rooms, Uncle Rico tries to work out how he can relive 1982, so that he can have another crack at grid-iron glory whilst the monumentally boring Pedro runs for school president. The trajectory of the script, written by Hess with his wife, Jerusha, is typically towards the redemptive but it is done with such understated charm and deadpan matter-of-factness that one cannot help but be amused and sometimes, and this is a rarity in my experience, laugh out loud. Although the choice of title may raise a question mark, my only real criticism of the film as such is that the development of Kip’s love life is a little too incongruous.
The cast are terrific, with Jon Heder perversely irresistible as the dysfunctional Napoleon, Aaron Ruell scarily spot-on as the terminally daggy Kip, Tina Majorino endearing as the sweetily daggy Deb and Jon Gries excellent as a self-deluding, small-time hustler (a role which recalls his work for the Polish brothers, whose films, like this one, are also set in Idaho, evidently a very strange place). The art direction is superbly awful with some of the worst wardrobe mistakes you’re ever likely to see and Napoleon’s home a travesty of 70s fake wood panelling, laminex and cheap prints. This film certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste but if you’re a Wes Anderson fan or liked Ghost World or American Splendor you will probably find Napoleon Dynamite sweet indeed. And by the way, hang around for the closing credits because buried in there is the closing scene of the movie.
FYI: The unexplained odd name of the main character was appropriated from Elvis Costello’s 1986 LP Blood and Chocolate, Costello also having used it in 1982, when the B-side single Imperial Bedroom was credited to Napoleon Dynamite & The Royal Guard.