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52 Movies: Week 24 - Napoleon Dynamite

This series has so far had a definite tilt toward the Serious or Very Serious Film. I guess the lightest one up until now was my Marx Brothers contribution. Well, this week I'm moving the needle a bit further in that direction. Napoleon Dynamite could reasonably be described as pure fluff. So could a Marx Brothers comedy, of course, but the Marxes have attained classic status, which makes lending attention to them a mildly serious business. I'm suggesting that you see Napoleon, if you haven't already, for sheer fun. It soars to no great height and plumbs no great depths, but it's hugely enjoyable--to my taste, anyway. 

 It seemed for a while some years ago (ten? fifteen? I'm not sure) that the word "quirky" occurred much too frequently in reviews of movies and popular music. Since Napoleon Dynamite was released in 2004, maybe it was part of that quirkiness boom. At any rate I don't think I've ever seen a movie that more deserved the description, in fact almost defines the term. But I don't know how I could possibly communicate that quality in this review, so I'll just have to give you a sketch of the characters and plot, and a clip or two.

Napoleon Dynamite is a nerdy high-school student. As far as I can recall the name is never explained, but it's been some years since I saw the movie, so I could be wrong. Napoleon and his equally nerdy older brother Kip live with their gruff grandmother in a small town in Idaho. I don't recall that the missing parents are explained. The locale is rendered with a physical and cultural flatness (though there are mountains in the distance), in slightly washed-out color, that serves as an image of the flatness of Napoleon and Kip's situation and aspirations.  

The brothers are pretty thoroughly ill-equipped to triumph in the contests of adolescence. Napoleon wants to acquire "skills"--"You know, like numchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills"--which will make him attractive to girls. He has no skills, and he is not attractive to girls. Kip is similar. He claims to spend a lot of time "chatting with babes" on the Internet, but this also seems dubious, at least initially. Quite early in the movie their grandmother is injured and is out of the picture for the rest of the story. Her place as nominal caretaker of the two boys is taken by their Uncle Rico, a fairly obnoxious fellow whose life peaked when his high school football team might have won the state championship "if coach woulda put me in fourth quarter." Rico thinks of himself, or wants to think of himself, as a man of the world, but he does not competently navigate even this very small world.

We are invited to laugh at these losers, and we do, but for the most part it's not cruel laughter. This is in the end a very sweet film. I think it's the combination of sharp satire and sweetness that makes it so engaging and memorable. And quirkiness, of course.

Napoleon gets involved with a couple of other outsiders: a Mexican boy named Pedro and a sweetly shy girl, Deb, who inflicts great suffering on herself by selling "home-woven handicrafts" door-to-door to make money for college. Pedro decides to run for class president. Napoleon gets involved in the campaign and also woos Deb in the most hapless way you can imagine. Silly things happen: there are Deb's glamour photo business, Rico's herbal breast-enhancement business, a piƱata that looks like the most popular girl in school, Pedro's menacing cousins, a soul mate for Kip.... I don't think I'm giving away too much in saying that there is an absurd but highly satisfying happy ending. If it were on Netflix I'd watch it tonight.

Here is an early scene which includes Grandma.

 

Ever since I saw this movie I've had trouble saying the word "quesadilla" without prefixing it with "dang" and pronouncing the "ll" as in "laughter."

Uncle Rico reflects:

 

Just to cover my bases, in case you watch it on my recommendation and don't like it, I'll mention that there is by no means universal agreement with my view: Roger Ebert hated it. But note that when I googled "napoleon dynamite ebert review" I got a number of items disagreeing strongly with him.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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I have weirdly never seen this movie, Mac. I've always thought that I probably need to, but never taken any action. Recently my step-kids watched it at their father's house and both told me they hated it. Not that this sways me one way or the other; their tastes in movies is spotty at best.

Annie Hall was a funny movie! :)

I have been told that Napoleon Dynamite is Art Deco's favorite movie. This is just a rumor though.

I have always meant to watch this because I have a child who really likes it. This will remind me. It seems to be the sort of movie that has lines that have become part of the vocabulary of young people--or people who used to be young and are becoming 30 somethings.

AMDG

It has lines that have become part of the vocabulary of old people, too.

I'll certainly be interested in hearing y'all's reactions if/when you do see it. Netfix does have the dvd, by the way, it's just not streamable.

Interesting rumor, Stu.:-) I wouldn't fault his judgment if it's true.

True, Annie Hall is a comedy, but it's also got a pretty serious side. With Napoleon Dynamite at one end of the seriousness scale, and Hour of the Wolf at the other, I'd put Annie Hall somewhere near the middle.

That reminds me of an old George Carlin bit, Mac. He is talking about state license plates and what is written on them and somewhere near the end his two extreme examples are: New Hampshire, "Live Free or Die"; and Idaho, "Famous Potatoes". Then he says that somewhere between these two license plate sayings lies the truth, and he thinks its probably closer to "Famous Potatoes". This is also applicable since ND takes place in Idaho.

"Famous Potatoes" is a perfect fit for the milieu of ND. As well as some specific associations: "Give me some of your tots, Napoleon."

That makes me want some.

AMDG

Great movie. The first time I watched it I didn't really get it, but parts of it kind of stuck with me, so I watched it again a couple weeks later. The second time around I found it really funny.

You wouldn't believe how long it took me to figure out what ND meant. I was thinking North Dakota.

AMDG

Even I, when I first read over my own comment, first thought "Notre Dame."

If I remember correctly, my wife and I were partly entranced and partly puzzled on our first viewing, and immediately watched it again.

Ha. Well, I didn't associate Notre Dame with potatoes, but I thought they might grow them in North Dakota.

AMDG

Pedro talks about Santo Nino de Atocha in this movie.

AMDG

Oh, Janet throws that out because she knows I want to watch now! We only stream here, so if it's not streaming I have to look for a cheap DVD and sneak it into the house!!

You can stream it on Amazon.

AMDG

Cool - thanks, Janet! My wife is unhappy whenever I bring new items into the house to be stored forever. So I must discern...

I promised not to buy any more LPs. But I think if I got rid of some I could replace them. No net increase of space.

I promised not to buy any more dishes.

AMDG

That sounds like my logic, Mac. Then the other thing I do is bring books to my office where I have shelves not completely full. My issue is mainly books, but Margo seems grumpier when CDs and DVDs enter the home. Nice that she gives books more of a free pass.

Yes, that is nice. My wife says, re the LPs and CDs, "Maybe you should try listening to the ones you have." Humph.

I was just reading that Elvis Costello had used the name Napoleon Dynamite as a pseudonym since the early 80s. Wikipedia claims that the filmmaker did not know this and would have called his movie something different if he did. Elvis apparently decided not to take any legal action.

That is weird.

AMDG

Interesting. I wonder if it was something that the filmmaker had heard or read, then completely forgot about. That seems more likely than its being totally coincidental.

Musicians are funny. Elvis Costello is already a pseudonym, but apparently he will publish most songs as: D.P. McManus (real name), and others as Elvis, and still others as Napoleon Dynamite.

Bob Dylan (another made up name) produces all of his records as "Jack Frost".

I guess he didn't sue the people that made the Jack Frost movie.

AMDG

I read about the EC connection when I was writing that review. It really is far-fetched to think that the filmmaker came up with that very unlikely combination of names for the second time. I'm inclined to agree with Rob--that he had heard it somewhere and forgotten about it.

He may sue me for mentioning it, Janet! ;)

I finally have watched this movie, Mac. It is everything you said, very enjoyable. And I was happy to hear Pedro mention Santo Nino de Atocha. But Jon Heder really makes the movie; what a distinctively odd and wonderful character he plays.

Glad you liked it. Such a completely ridiculous little movie, but so delightful. I remember Pedro mentioning the "holy santos" but not that particular name.

The scene at the beginning where he hangs the army man out the school bus window and drags it behind the bus? That's totally me -- I did goofy stuff like that all the time.

My friends and I once got one of my sister's dolls, took off its clothes, tied fishing line around its neck and threw it over a telephone wire so it hung down in the middle of the street. We hid in the bushes, then whenever a car came we waited till it got close then hoisted the doll up and out of the way.

I never thought of it until years later -- how weird must it have been to those drivers coming up the hill to see a baby doll floating in the air in the middle of the street? Fortunately it wasn't a particularly busy street or we might have caused an accident.

Ha. Very weird indeed it must have seemed. Maybe not at the time, but now it would probably seem like some kind of horror movie motif.

I guess I didn't do stuff like that, because I was sort of baffled by that scene. I think it was mainly because he went about it with such seriousness. I kept waiting for something more to happen, but no, he just dragged it. It was a great opening just because it seemed so absurd.

As long as we're mentioning scenes, his dance after Pedro's low-key address was pretty amazing. Apparently it won the election for Pedro. I guess the unlikeliness of that character (and actor) being able to dance is what made it so fun - the surprise factor.

Yeah, that bit was perfect, Stu. Completely out of the blue!

When the music starts you're thinking "Oh this is going to be *so* awful, I can't watch." And then it works--I mean, within the realm of that kind of dancing.

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