Movies

'Napoleon Dynamite': Misfits Like a Glove

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004

You haven't seen anything till you've seen Napoleon Dynamite do the funky chicken.

Well, all right, it's not the funky chicken. You can see some funky chicken buried in it if you look carefully, though most of the moves show the influence of the Los Angeles dance masters Popin' Pete and Kool DJ Herc. Napoleon's freezes do need some work, and his back swipes and corkscrews could be a little smoother.

Still, you can't miss him. Not because he's a great dancer, but because he's about seven feet tall, he has a red Afro, his mouth is half open and his eyes are half shut, and most of the other boys like to beat up on him. And he's the most E.T.-looking white kid you ever saw.

Napoleon is big but weak, so soft he can't ball his hand into a fist. That makes him the clown prince of Preston, Idaho, and, as played by Jon Heder in the magnificent "Napoleon Dynamite," he's one of the most winning movie creations in years.

Of Napoleon it cannot be said that he marches to a different drummer. No, what he marches to is an instrument so unique it has no name and its melodies are beyond the capacity of the human ear to receive. Napoleon, maybe 17 (though Heder turns out to be 26), has a stretched-out, pillowy body that he cannot quite control and that keeps ramming into things. He has the eye-hand coordination of a Ukrainian weightlifter pickled in a vat of vodka. When he runs -- slowly, tragically, like a glacier melting -- he holds his elbows close to his body as if they're made of porcelain and will break. No wonder it's so much fun to crush him against a locker on the way to math class.

As a consequence of his advanced studies in exile, loneliness and disconnection, exacerbated by a family whose dysfunction is epic, Napoleon has cultivated a rather thorny personality. He's extremely acerbic; he's cruel and unsupportive; he's a chronic liar, a teller of self-aggrandizing tales so lame you wonder why he tries. ("My girlfriend's in Cleveland and she was going to fly in but she had a modeling assignment.") He's also transparently needy, throwing himself at those he suspects are snacks in the high school food chain. So what's not to love about a misfit so galactically misfitted as this?

It's a signal irony that a movie shot for $200,000 by a Mormon couple (director Jared Hess and his wife, Jerusha Hess, also the co-writer) in Idaho opens nationally on the same day as Steven Spielberg's $100 million "The Terminal" and that "Napoleon Dynamite" is every inch the superior product. It's tight, resonant, funny as hell, seriously bent and whacked, and also wonderfully healing.

That's because it's about diversity, really. Its text may be whiteness, but its subtext is blackness. It's about a couple of mutant white kids pushed to the margins of their own tribe who embrace black culture and find liberation, peace and dignity, to say nothing of emotional nourishment. It ends up saying, quietly and without strutting, this great American thing: We are each other and we are more alike than different, and we can profit so much from that connection.

Napoleon and his even more pathetic brother Kip (hysterical Aaron Ruell), a 32-year-old bespectacled pervert in Bermudas and knee socks trolling the chat universe for undercover officers to talk dirty to, live in a tiny house in a West so vast and barren it makes you yearn for a friendly McDonald's. The far-off mountains are picturesque but between here and there lies a Siberian plain the color of dead goats. The brothers are nothing, they have nothing, they do nothing, they are going nowhere slow. Their one connection to the galaxy is grandma, who in the early going breaks a bone in a dirt-bike accident (Granny has a life!) and so Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) -- a loser so big, his hobby is videotaping himself throwing a football to recall the glory day in 1982 when he almost got into the game -- moves in for the free lodging.

As a director, Hess's specialty is the deadpan announcement. He sets the camera down, lets his characters enter the frame at their own pace, make an announcement freighted with serious dementia, and then he cuts rapidly away, so that you're really laughing not at what was said, but at his refusal to underscore it in a conventional way.

Plot? Not a lot. But enough. Napoleon, desperate for friends but too repressed to be friendly, clumsily engages Pedro, a transfer played equally deadpan by Efren Ramirez; his outstanding trait is that he owns the only mustache in school. Pedro is also either foolhardy or clueless as he tries to date girls way up the social ladder and then finally runs for class president against Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff), the coolest of the cool girls.

So you might say that the film is about the revenge of the nerds: how Napoleon and Pedro usurp the high school pecking order. But it doesn't concentrate on that. The Hesses' storytelling style is whimsical, episodical, in the end anecdotal, and almost, but not always, winning. We follow Kip's attempts to woo a woman in a chat room who turns out to be the savior of his life; we go with Kip and Uncle Rico as they try to sell Tupperware to farmers' wives; we go with Napoleon to a new job at a chicken farm and behold the horror of a million squawking eggbirds in a stalag of mesh wire under a corrugated tin roof.

Mistakes are made. A riff about a time machine that Uncle Rico orders off the Internet to get back to 1982 is ridiculous, even if Gries (son of the excellent director Tom Gries) is always funny, with his hairpiece and his entrepreneurial delusions and his eternal overestimation of his charm.

The manipulations by which it turns out that Napoleon must dance before the whole school in order to deliver the election for Pedro are quite thin, though it's organically rooted in the plot as part of Napoleon's secret plan to de-geekify himself by studying a hip-hop dance tape. But the movie builds to the moment when Napoleon, in his space boots and T-shirt, with his red foam of hair and his tiny eyes blown up by his aviators, must do the thing itself . . . the music comes on . . . the feet begin to twitch, the legs begin to shimmy, the hips begin to pump.

At that moment you realize how expertly Heder has hidden his true grace and how hard he has worked on finding a body and a style of movement for Napoleon and how totally convincing the artifice has been. Now, shedding it, he finds the magic. It's really the best six minutes of movie I've seen this year: the big ungainly boy seizing the moment, giving himself up to the music and transfiguring before our very eyes into something that, although still damned strange, is utterly compelling and even poignant.

"Napoleon Dynamite" rules.

Napoleon Dynamite (86 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated PG for what the MPAA calls "thematic elements," whatever that means.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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