For something so slight, the new comedy "Napoleon Dynamite" has a surprisingly polarizing effect on audiences. Within 15 seconds of the title character's appearance, you'll either think he is the most astonishingly original creation you've ever seen or realize that you are in for a very long 88-minute ride. The feature-directing debut of Idaho native Jared Hess, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Jerusha, the movie is a cartoonish paean to its über-nerd antihero. It's a simple collection of sight gags and pratfalls that mines the overly familiar turf of awkward adolescence without bringing anything truly original to the experience.
Napoleon, played with admirable commitment by newcomer Jon Heder, is a high school student enduring the vicissitude of growing up in the small Gem State town of Preston, where he lives with his grandmother and older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell).
To call Napoleon Dynamite annoying would be an extreme understatement. The deadly combination of whininess and anger makes his mistreatment almost understandable. He stomps the hallways of Preston High, muttering his favorite words, "sweet" and "idiot!," practically begging to be slammed into a locker. By this age, you'd have hoped he would have learned that most precious of teenage survival skills: lying low.
Ramrod straight from his tight-red perm down to his moon boots, Napoleon is an amalgam of different types of uncool kids. He is simultaneously the guy who spends all day drawing fantastical creatures in his notebook while also telling tall tales to ingratiate himself with the jocks — his claims about hunting wolverines in Alaska, however, earn him only more derision. His favorite sport is, unfortunately, tetherball.
When Napoleon and Kip's grandmother is injured in an ATV accident, ultra-macho Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) arrives to look after them. A vain, biceps-flexing relic, forever reliving a what-might-have-been moment from his high school football career, Rico drives a dated van and eats a lot of steak.
The main joke with Rico is that while his girlfriend dumps him because he is living in the past, specifically, 1982, the entire town of Preston is an aesthetic time warp trapped in the '80s. Aside from there being Internet access, you'd think it is 1982. From the way people dress to some of the dialogue, the movie pays homage to the decade with the kind of nostalgic fervor that only people too young to remember it properly can muster.
The movie's episodic plot leads Napoleon to befriend the new kid in school, Mexican immigrant Pedro (Efren Ramirez). They set out to land dates to a school dance, which earns them the friendship of Deb (Tina Majorino, in the film's best performance) and eventually leads to Pedro's campaign for student body president against the prototypical popular blond, Summer (Haylie Duff, Hilary's sister).
The movie possesses a smugness that is as irritating as Napoleon himself. It feels so self-satisfied in its attempt to create a portrait of a lovable loser — infusing him with quirky qualities meant to be endearing — but in reality, the movie plays like a revisionist goof, lumping together broad archetypes for cheap laughs while pretending to be the ultimate underdog movie.
Hess is not a misanthrope, he simply wants it both ways. He wants to slam Napoleon into the locker for laughs, but he also wants to pick him up, dust him off and give him a feel-good ending that doesn't ring true.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and language
Times guidelines: Lots of knock-down, fall-down, slapstick-style humor.
Jon Heder...Napoleon Dynamite
Jon Gries...Uncle Rico
Aaron Ruell...Kip Dynamite
A presentation of Paramount Pictures and MTV Films, in association with Fox Searchlight, released by Fox Searchlight. Director Jared Hess. Producers Jeremy Coon, Chris Wyatt, Sean C. Covel. Executive producer Jory Weitz. Screenplay by Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess. Cinematographer Munn Powell. Editor Jeremy Coon. Music John Swihart. Production designer Cory Lorenzen. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.