A little pop instead of a big bang

Movie Review

July 02, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Blackout routines performed by people who act as if they're on the verge of blacking out. That's the comic mechanism of Napoleon Dynamite, a deadpan farce named for a sour, gangly, bespectacled high-school misfit (Jon Heder) who lives with his endlessly computer-chatting thirtysomething brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and their salty grandmother (Sandy Martin) in the small town of Preston, Idaho.

Random acts of unkindness mingle with bungled acts of generosity as Napoleon, a fantasist by nature and a rebel by default, eventually joins forces with good-hearted Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the one Mexican in school, and nice-girl Deb (Tina Majorino), who snaps "glamour shots" at a mall store. Together they wrest control of Preston High from the likes of blond, cheerful in-crowd types like Summer (Hayley Duff).

Despite its surface eccentricity, the movie divides along normal teen-flick lines - the insiders are superficial no-goodniks, the outsiders have heart. When Summer runs against Pedro for student-body president, she proves her badness when she says she doesn't want chimichangas served in the cafeteria.

Director Jared Hess depicts Preston as a white-bread suburbia plopped down in a redneck rural landscape. A rancher can shoot a cow without compunction in front of a packed school bus; a chicken farmer pays helpers with loose change and raw-egg juice. And the movie develops a lower-depths teen humor that proves infectious in a semi-degrading way.

The laughs come from embarrassment, the comic momentum from how much more embarrassing life always gets for Napoleon, especially after his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) enters the picture. Fixated on 1982, the year he's convinced Preston could have won a state football championship if only the coach had deployed him properly, Rico engages Kip in door-to-door sales schemes. Napoleon resists, but that doesn't save him from shame when Rico peddles herbal bust enhancers.

What's distinctive about Napoleon Dynamite is that Napoleon himself never plays nice or cops to his own geekhood, even when he's asking babes to join him in games of tetherball. And his friends typically give him bad advice, as when Pedro recommends that he woo a popular girl by drawing her portrait. (When her mom makes her go out with Napoleon, she ends up dumping him at the dance.)

But attitude and a rough, staccato style alone do not a movie make. At the end of Napoleon Dynamite, you're glad the geeks have their day (even Kip's chat-mate turns out be a winner); you're also relieved to be rid of them.

Napoleon Dynamite

Starring Jon Heder

Directed by Jared Hess

Rated PG

Released by Fox Searchlight

Time 82 minutes

SUN SCORE * * (2 stars)

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