Napoleon Dynamite is not just the title of director and co-writer Jared Hess' debut feature, but also the name given to its lead character—a four-eyed beanpole of a teenager with an elastic-intensive wardrobe and a mass of unkempt reddish-blond curls that resembles the rubber top of a giant human pencil. Mostly, though, it's a catchy catchphrase in search of a movie—a thrift-shop Wes Anderson pastiche masquerading as the latest in cult-film haute couture. Hess' film arrives more or less fresh from Sundance, where it was acquired by Fox Searchlight during the festival's first weekend for an estimated $3 million, but judging from the reaction there—and at a local screening I attended two weekends ago—the movie seems destined to divide audiences. Either you find Napoleon Dynamite the epitome of all that's right with American independent cinema today or exactly the kind of movie by which independent movies may sow the seeds of their own demise.
Set in Hess' hometown of Preston, Idaho, Napoleon Dynamite is about its titular supergeek (Jon Heder) and how his fondness for one-man tetherball games and sub-Jackass stunts performed on an undersized bicycle do little to endear him to the other kids in school. Neither does Napoleon harbor much fondness for his 30-something older brother (Aaron Ruell), who whiles away his days in online chat rooms, nor for his ATV-racing grandmother (Sandy Martin), who insists that Napoleon care for her pet llama. And when Napoleon speaks, the words come out in an exasperated huff, as though the world and all its denizens were just one big, cruel burden placed on his shoulders for the devil's amusement. Of course, similar things could be said of the iconoclastic misfits at the center of almost any youth picture that prefers oddballs to prom kings, including three fine entries from earlier this year—Noi, The Girl Next Doorand Mean Girls—and, in particular, Anderson's Rushmore, a film on which Hess seems to have overdosed. (Like Anderson, Hess is a detail fetishist, and while he lacks anything resembling Anderson's fluid sense of visual direction, he's packed Napoleon Dynamite with the hideous relics of his own coming-of-age: knee socks, moon boots, Velcro-sealed Trapper Keepers, top-loading VCRs.)
But those movies had outsider heroes we could actually relate to—we could get behind their Sisyphean struggles to make their voices heard in the world and break out of their socially dysfunctional prisons. Napoleon Dynamite, conversely, does nothing but hold Napoleon (and his entourage of eccentric friends and relatives) up for ridicule; they're a bit like the sissy characters in pre-Code Hollywood films, or almost any characters in the lazier exercises of the Coen brothers. Up to and including a breakdancing finale that some have mistakenly identified as the movie's compassionate turning point, Hess is so eager to make us guffaw that he solicits only our crassest instincts, asking us to revel in the misfortunes of those who look or talk "funny" or—in what makes for an unsavory underpinning to much of the film's alleged humor—who live somewhere in the neighborhood of the poverty-line. If Napoleon Dynamite really is, as reported, a semiautobiographical exercise, it is one of the most astoundingly self-hating such exercises in memory.
Yet the trick works for some, as it did for the throngs of college-age moviegoers who burst their appendixes laughing through a recent promotional screening. And indeed, there's a sense in which Napoleon Dynamite is more promotion than movie—from Fox's agreeing to distribute the film to more than 1,000 theaters to its aggressive Internet advertising campaign, even to a Napoleon Dynamite frequent-viewer club that rewards repeat ticket buyers with eligibility for prize drawings. And so it may be that Hess has passed with flying colors through his own initiation ritual, delivering the sort of mass-marketable crossover product that helps make the indie-film world seem ever less like a creative universe unto itself and more like a lobster tank full of aspiring Hollywood hacks ripe for the boiling.