Thursday 22 March 2012

From the archive: "Napoleon Dynamite"

The eponymous hero of co-writer/director Jared Hess's breakthrough film Napoleon Dynamite may just be the dork's dork. This ultra-gawky individual - myopic, oddly haired, even more oddly dressed - lives out his adolescence in rural Idaho; while his grandmother, his only apparent guardian, is off dating, and his sleazy uncle is schooling his chatroom-addicted brother in the ways of selling Tupperware - primarily as a way of entering the homes of middle-aged divorcees - Napoleon (Jon Heder) busies himself helping his school's new boy Pedro (Efren Ramirez), in his attempts to woo a blonde cheerleader and become class president. Napoleon himself only has eyes for the odd girl from the local beauty salon: this is Tina Majorino, the young actress from Andre, now with lopsided ponytail.

Among Napoleon Dynamite's many pleasures is its portrayal of the kind of high school, and the kind of high schoolers, rarely seen on screen: a collection of freaks and geeks, squashed together in small classrooms; a place where people walk, or talk, or dress funny, where even the jocks have haircuts you might elect to make sport of, and nobody really seems sure of themselves, least of all the teachers. The style is a little Wes Anderson: the straight-ahead camera, the love of visual symmetries, the desire to create (and thus control) an entire world, right down to the smallest detail (posters, advertising campaigns; the opening credits are presented in the form of home-made platters, with the cast and crew's names spelt out in either mayonnaise or tomato sauce).

Yet the characters, thankfully, couldn't be any less like the mummified museum pieces and mannequins Anderson poses and points at. Take Heder's Napoleon, as the most prominent example of a complete comic creation: more than just an overbite, he's prone to endless boasts about his romantic and combative abilities (a fictional girlfriend from Oklahoma, non-existent skill with nunchuks); a way of speaking that makes everything - especially the exhortation to his pet llama to "come get some ham" - sound like too much effort; sudden explosions of petulance, signs he hasn't grown out of childhood just yet; and feeble high-kicks in response to the bullies who routinely push him into the school lockers. (Given the levels of playfighting here, it was a logical progression for Hess to set his follow-up Nacho Libre in the world of Mexican wrestling.)

The signs are that Hess is something of a softie himself, pairing all his characters - even the sleazeballs and Internet daters - up with somebody suitable, like an indie Cupid, and rather sweetly keeping at least Napoleon's first attempts at disco-dancing (an easy laugh) behind bedroom doors, so as to spare the character some dignity. It's very much of the fitful new wave of American comedy, reliant less, perhaps, on jokes than it is on quirks in sketches - I'd wager this is one of those films where even those viewers who find it hilarious would be hard-pushed to describe to the unconverted why they do - but there's a heart beating under its perm and big specs, and a sense of a distinctive directorial sensibility waiting to be discovered. Stay tuned through the end credits, not just for the bonus scene, but to hear When in Rome's "The Promise" reclaimed for the keening ballad it always was.

(August 2007)

Napoleon Dynamite screens on C4 tomorrow night at 12.35am.

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