Thursday, February 05, 2015

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) ****

“Napoleon Dynamite” is the kind of film you feel like re-watching every few years. Its fun catchphrases (“Flippin' Sweet!”) and bizarro, geek-chic ethos made it a comedic, cultural event. With such movies, there's always a temptation to re-watch and try to re-capture that delight you felt watching it for the first time.

Watching it this week, I found that delight hard to find at first. The characters are so intentionally bizarre that they are hard to relate to, and it takes a while to get even the film's minimal narrative going. For those who haven't seen the movie, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is an extremely nerdy high-school student. With his mouth half-open and his eyes half-closed under tinted glasses, he comes across as mildly autistic. With no friends, the guy lives in his head, drawing pictures of ligers and playing solo-tetherball. Napoleon befriends a new kid in school, the equally sleepy-eyed Pedro (Efren Ramirez). They wind up connecting with the awkward Deb (Tina Majorino), and the three of them form a little, nerdy team. Meanwhile, Napoleon's stunted older brother Kip tries to find love online, while his crazy Uncle Rico dreams of traveling back in time to his high school glory days.

The magic of “Napoleon Dynamite” is that while the characters are initially so bizarre that they seem unrelatable, they become highly relatable by the end. Most movies about teenagers present outsider status as some kind of badge of honor. The hyper-articulate “nerds” wear black clothes, listen to cool music, and read interesting books. They are highly aware of their outsider status, and they are rewarded when they make a deep connection with a fellow outsider. These movies, like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” basically depict the kind of nerd that the adult filmmaker wishes he had been as a teen. “Napoleon Dynamite,” for all of its strangeness, is more real. Napoleon and his friends lack self-awareness. They just sort of muddle through, mostly clueless about themselves and others. I think this feels very familiar to most people.

There's a great scene in the film where the kids are at a dance and the Alphaville song “Forever Young” plays. The lyric “I want to be forever young” is deeply ironic considering how difficult being young is, for Napoleon and his friends, and really for most people. They say old age is not for sissies, but adolescence is no picnic either.

4 stars out of 5

No comments: