Napoleon Dynamite (Fox Searchlight) was this year’s up-from-nowhere hit at Sundance, where “quirky” regionalism plus a sort of East Village zombie deadpan goes over big with the folks who are too cool for school. To me it looked like a Mormon stab at Wes Anderson—which might be, for some people, an enticement. The director, Jared Hess (who devised the script with his wife, Jerusha, both recent graduates of Brigham Young), uses the Idaho farm landscape cannily, as a great blank stage on which affectless nerds move in horizontal lines, like sleepwalkers, or stagger back into the empty landscape toward the horizon line. The movie has some indelible moments, but it tends to put your brain at half-mast.
Half-mast is how the movie’s teenage protagonist moves through the world. Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is neither Napoleonic nor dynamic, which is, I guess, the joke. (The name, an Elvis Costello alter ego, makes Hess the second Mormon after Neil LaBute, in The Shape of Things, to use Costello to no particular end recently.) He’s tall and skinny with frizzy hair, and he breathes through a sea-anemone-shaped mouth nearly filled by two giant front teeth. What you notice, though, are his eyes—or, rather, the lack of them. Most of the time, Napoleon stares under lids three-quarters closed at a spot several inches to the east of his lap. When the new kid at school, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), turns out to be a mouth-breather who stares dopily in the same direction, you know it’s a love match. They can look at nothing and trade monotonic non sequiturs all day.
The director loves those non sequiturs. This is the sort of movie where there’s a shock cut from the placid farm of Napoleon’s grandmother (Sandy Martin) to a buggy speeding toward a sand dune, then an insert to show you it’s grandma in the buggy. Then grandma realizes she’s about to hurtle into oblivion. While she recovers from a cracked coccyx, the resourceful hustler Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to look after Napoleon and his older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), a 30-year-old stay-at-home bed-wetter who spends hours in an online chat room with a Michigan woman named LaFawnduh. Uncle Rico has never gotten over a football loss in 1982, and he makes the brothers watch a video in which he throws one football after another in the direction of the camera. “This is pretty much the worst video ever made,” says Napoleon. “Like you would know that,” sneers Kip.
I loved that exchange. And after about 40 minutes (of 86), I began to enjoy the one-thing-after-anotherness and the minimalist wit of the actors embodying many different species of nerd. Soon, a plot sort of half kicks in, and Napoleon finds himself half-working to get a date for the prom and the unassertive Pedro elected school president. The wit is in what isn’t said—in the paralyzing horribleness of Napoleon’s courtship, the revulsion of the girl when he sketches a supremely unflattering portrait, and the sight of the pair entering the prom to the strains of “Forever Young,” as if anyone would want to be watching this.
Well, there are blessings. Just when we’re sinking into a Todd Solondz morass, Napoleon Dynamite becomes a sort of half-romance, when Napoleon half-expresses affection for the shy Deb (Tina Majorino) by presenting her with a large frozen bass. The climax is the only all-out moment: a triumphant dance number in which the tension between Napoleon’s frozen face and suddenly elastic, bopping body is jaw-dropping. Napoleon Dynamite is too low-wattage to be a true nerd anthem, but it’s charming in retrospect, when you’re freed from the narcoleptic pace to think back on the queerly beautiful tableaux and well-timed gags. It’s like Wes Anderson on Quaaludes.