WE'VE SEEN NERDS on screen before. But none compare to the uber-weedy Napoleon Dynamite.
In the low-budget indie comedy that bears his name, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a scrawny scowler from Preston, Idaho, whose eyes are lost behind the semi-opaque haze of his glasses. His red, frizzy hair looks like wire brush bristles that have been stretched and tortured into the shape of an ice cream scoop. (There's a side parting as if Napoleon occasionally makes half-hearted stabs at coiffure.) His mouth sags open as if its closing mechanism has a permanent malfunction. And his cool swagger -- complete with body-hugging jeans and T-shirt as well as soft-leather shin-high boots -- blissfully ignores his obvious nerditude.
He claims to own nunchucks. He pretends to have a girlfriend. He refuses to surrender to anyone, even the bully that regularly strangles him and bashes his head against his locker door. And his monotonal patter is given to sudden exclamations of "Goooosh!" and "Idiot!" directed at whoever's annoying him lately.
"What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" A kid asks one morning as Napoleon makes his way to the back of the school bus.
"Whatever I feel like I want to -- goooosh!" he says, peeved. He throws a little plastic figurine attached to a long thread through the window. Holding on to the string, he watches it bump and bounce on the road behind the bus all the way to school. And another Napoleon day begins.
Directed by Jared Hess (and co-written with his wife, Jerusha Hess), "Napoleon Dynamite," is definitely a one-shtick movie. And there is the nagging thought that laughing at these characters amounts to ridicule. But then there's the counter feeling that this is no different than watching a live-action version of, say, Mike Judge's TV cartoons ("Beavis and Butt-head," "King of the Hill"), or a hinterland spin on Todd Solondz's suburban geek-epic "Welcome to the Dollhouse." And I wonder if it isn't just as condescending and elitist to refrain from laughing at characters in America's cow-pasture land, as if they are beasts in a wildlife preserve that need our sanctimonious protection. I laughed. And I laughed primarily over Heder's hilarious performance. You ain't seen nothing till you've seen Napoleon attack that tether ball.
Napoleon spends most of his time weathering the weirdness of his family. His grandmother likes to drive fast on her dune buggy. Her injury resulting from this pastime forces Napoleon's incredibly bizarre Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) to watch over Napoleon and his reclusive, thirty-something brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends his life exploring Internet chat rooms. Rico, who loves to admire his biceps and make home videos of himself throwing a football, is Napoleon's biggest scourge.
Is there a story? Sort of. Napoleon befriends a new student named Pedro (Efren Ramirez), whose withdrawn, heavily accented demeanor makes him a social outcast. But as we learn, he is completely self-respecting and doesn't care what the unenlightened think. (There is no scorn here; quite the opposite.) In fact, Pedro decides to run for school president against the overwhelmingly popular Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff -- Hilary's sister).
Despite what seems to be a miserable existence -- the "normal" world (like all those Judge cartoons and "Dollhouse") is just too horrible to deal with -- Napoleon has a sort of indefatigable life energy. And when he decides to work for Pedro's campaign (his suggested campaign slogan: "Vote for me and all your dreams will come true"), he shows no fear of standing up against the majority. And there's some hope that he'll get it together to become romantic with sweet, shy Deb (Tina Majorino). But in this kind of a movie, who knows? That's the charm of it. You have no idea what's next.
Napoleon's final act, to save Pedro's flagging campaign, is the movie's big punch line. It doesn't amount to much in the dramaturgical scheme of things. But there's something so funny and liberating about the performance, it doesn't matter. You find yourself laughing at Napoleon's antics but you're definitely rooting for him. Ultimately, you realize, he's cooler than everyone.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (PG, 86 minutes) -- Contains some sexual innuendo. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.