2 stars (out of 4)
"Napoleon Dynamite" may have been the surprise comedy hit of the last Sundance Film festival--and its 24-year-old co-writer-director Jared Hess may be a helmer with a future--but that doesn't mean it will make you laugh out loud. It didn't tickle me much, anyway, though it did hand me a few smiles and it may work for others.
Hess, his co-writer wife Jerusha Hess and some buddies from Brigham Young University have imagined a screw-loose parody of the small Idaho city where Hess grew up. They populated it with the usual collection of snobs, nerds and eccentrics you find in most high school comedies (whether big-studio or indie), found a camera-friendly newcomer, Jon Heder, to play the lead role of local weirdo Napoleon Dynamite and came up with the sort of amiably bent, wistful indie that plays well at festivals and jogs a few memories of how silly or painful high school was.
It's fairly entertaining--but not the second coming of indie comedy some notices might lead you to expect. The best things about "Napoleon," in fact, are the gangly moonchild presence of Heder, and the overall mood of retro '80s style, languor and absurdity that Hess gets.
Heder's Napoleon is a misfit of unusual obnoxiousness: a tetherball addict whose favorite expressions (repeated endlessly) are "Sweet" and "Idiot!" Napoleon lives with his computer-geeky younger brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and, temporarily, with their macho-creepo Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), while attending Preston (Idaho) High--which happens to be Hess' alma mater.
At Preston, he bonds with fellow misfits Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino), while assaulting the values of popular personality kid Summer and her vacuous but well-dressed jock-cheerleader retinue, all of whom he and Pedro challenge in a school election. Meanwhile, Uncle Rico zips around town trying be a supersalesman, as Napoleon's grandma recovers from a cycle accident.
The movie has an offbeat film-indie mood, but the climax of all this is exactly the sort of flabbergasting worm-turning resolution you'd get in "Revenge of the Nerds" or any other "Geeks rule" Hollywood comedy of the '80s--a few of which are much better than "Napoleon."
I was rooting for "Napoleon Dynamite" because, like Hess, I come from a small town--Williams Bay, Wis.--that is even tinier than Preston (funnier, too). But this is the sort of Sundance audience hit that doesn't necessarily travel. For me, the humor was too derivative, the resolution too upbeat.
To give Hess credit, he and his company have made an entertaining movie on a small budget, with a good mix of new talent and veterans, like Gries ("Jackpot," "Northfork") and Majorino ("When a Man Loves a Woman"). Even if it's no "Bottle Rocket" or "Twin Falls, Idaho," the movie has style, smarts and vision--that overall off-trail whimsy that's always called "quirkiness." It leaves you confident about the movies Hess will eventually make, if not totally pleased with this one.
Directed by Jared Hess; written by Jared Hess. Jerusha Hess; photographed by Munn Powell; edited by Jeremy Coon; production designed by Cory Lorenzen; music by John Swihart; produced by Coon, Chris Wyatt, Sean S. Covel. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, June 18. Running time: 1:28. MPAA rating: PG.
Napoleon Dynamite - Jon Heder
Uncle Rico - Jon Gries
Kip - Aaron Ruell
Pedro - Efren Ramirez
Deb - Tina Majorino
Summer - Haylie Duff