Today! Because vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true –
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Directed by Jared Hess
Starring Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries (x2), Aaron Ruell, Tina Majorino, Diedrich Bader (x3), Sandy Martin, Haylie Duff, Shondrella Avery, Trevor Snarr
Joining the long history of comedies in which every idiot you know does an impression of the main character (The Mask, Austin Powers, Forrest Gump, Borat, Caddyshack, Ace Ventura, and on and on), Napoleon Dynamite snuck onto the scene as a low-budget, indie, film festival darling and became a massive cult hit in the summer of 2004. This was another early relationship favorite here on Team Boots, so many of the endlessly quotable lines from this movie made it onto our mix CDs, discussed last week in #134 Wedding Crashers. “What are you going to do today, Napoleon?” Classic!
Did this movie become kinda tired almost immediately? Yes. This manner of comedy – where at least half the laughs come from the way people say things, more so than the things they say – is going to wear thin pretty quickly. But it’s the strident weirdness of the film, and its bizarro characters, that make it still a pretty viable option once you fight through that initial hangover from the film’s omnipresence. Sure, Napoleon himself is the hardest thing to deal with on early repeated viewings – even though he’s the character you love best first – but then you can focus on the greatness of Jon Gries’ Uncle Rico and Efram Ramirez’s Pedro and Tina Majorino’s Deb and, oh my God, Aaron Ruell’s Kip. Some of these folks have put together decent-ish subsequent careers – some of them had good careers going beforehand – but I’d venture that most of the main actors in this film will be forever cemented in the public’s memory as their Napoleon Dynamite alter egos. And, of course, the most remarkable thing about this wall-to-wall, unmistakable comedy is that it’s rated PG. And even that seems like a bit much – this could’ve been a G easily. There is nothing remotely scandalous in this film, and yet it’s hilarious. That might be the most impressive feat achieved in this weirdo, high school tale.
But – and this is key – if you didn’t like it originally, and never understood the rabid fandom that grew around it, you still won’t like it today. It’s not a movie that somehow ages into your sensibilities, or becomes likable upon repeated viewing. I’ve heard it described that this might be the most divisive comedy ever made – that it’s a love/hate affair with virtually no middle ground, and that has to be because the tone is so specific, and is relentlessly the same throughout the film. I unabashedly love this movie, but I’ve met people adamantly convinced it’s a terrible, unfunny glorified student film. And hey, fair enough – I’m just saying, I’d be amazed to meet somebody who came around to Napoleon Dynamite years down the road.
I’ve wanted to be hard line about handing out film MVPs – ever since Hart Bochner’s introduced this list to the concept as Ellis in #223 Die Hard – and only award it to one person. Whenever Sunday Night Football gives out multiple game MVPs I feel it a cowardly move based on laziness and incompetence, so why would I emulate their lousy example? And yet, Napoleon Dynamite is so stocked with wacky characters that I simply can’t decide between two of my minor favorites, and so, first, I’m going with Shondrella Avery’s Lafawnduh – kinda obviously –
New Two-Timer Jon Gries (#376 Men in Black) was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his amazing work as Uncle Rico, and the movie won Best Film at the MTV Awards, but that’s about it for any mainstream accolades. It was revived as an animated TV show in 2012 – I distinctly remember saying this could make a great sitcom after the movie was out – but I was proved wrong by the dismal mess the six episode run ended up. But hey, the movie still features the Best Tetherball Game, Best Steak to the Face, and Best Election Day Dance Routine on screen. Hell, you could come up with a dozen more superlatives, so rare are most things appearing in this movie.