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 piñata 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.