Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite (2004)


(director/writer: Jared Hess; screenwriter: Jerusha Hess; cinematographer: Munn Powell; editor: Jeremy Coon; music: John Swihart; cast: Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Jon Gries (Uncle Rico), Aaron Ruell (Kip Dynamite), Efren Ramirez (Pedro), Tina Majorino (Deb), Diedrich Bader (Rex Kwon Do), Sandy Martin (Grandma), Haylie Duff (Summer), Shondrella Avery (LaFawnduh), Emily Kennard (Trisha); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Jeremy Coon/Chris Wyatt/Sean C. Covel; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2004)
“This film is more about scoring points over Jon Heder’s unique performance than in telling a meaningful story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Former Brigham Young University student Jared Hess is the 24-year-old co-writer, along with his wife Jerusha, of Napoleon Dynamite, who makes his directing debut in this offbeat comedy about an eccentric nerdy high schooler, the titled character, trying to survive being an outsider in his bland small-town of Preston, Idaho (Hess’s hometown). Napoleon is a strange kind of hero, who is not particularly likable but sort of grows on your soft side with his weird humor and the way he outrageously walks around school with a faraway look, wearing moon boots and wildlife T-shirts. He acts like a simpleton locked into his own private dream world, with his animal sketches being his only apparent talent–his favorite animal which he calls a “liger,” is a cross between a lion and a tiger. The loner spends his spare time trying to perfect his tetherball game, feeding his pet llama and performing hand signal sing-alongs with the Happy Hands Club.

The laid-back, bespectacled, deadpan, gawky and frizzy-haired Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), lives with his secretly wild motorbike riding grandma (Sandy Martin) and his 32-year-old dominating nerdy brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) in the desolate desert town of Preston. Kip is having a chat room Internet romance with African-American Detroit ghetto gal LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery). When granny goes down in a motorbike riding accident in the sand dunes and is hospitalized, sleazy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is recruited to watch her grandchildren. Rico’s a frustrated ex-jock who is trying to relive his almost glorious high school football days back in 1982 (the film seems retro in its 1980s fashion look, though it’s apparently set in the present). The obnoxious Rico lives out of his Dodge van and makes a living selling plastic Tupperware-like food storage containers, and when that doesn’t pan out his next get-rich-quick scheme is selling herbal breast enhancements. Rico is so obsessed with the past that he videotapes himself throwing a football for accuracy and buys a time machine hawked on the Internet, hoping to return to his high school gridiron days to parlay his revived football prowess into an NFL career.

When the shy new Mexican immigrant student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) enters Preston High School, Napoleon becomes his best friend. The two outsiders scheme to get dates for the upcoming school dance. Pedro when rejected by the most popular and attractive girl in the school, Summer (Haylie Duff), successfully hits on the geeky girl Napoleon was about to ask but never got around to–Deb (Tina Majorino). She’s a timid photographer, who tries earning money selling flashy homemade key chains by going door-to-door.

When Summer runs for school president, Pedro emerges as the unlikely candidate opposing her. Napoleon puts his heart and soul into getting the nervy but slightly retarded Pedro elected, performing as a breakdancer to win him votes. At this point the incoherent story starts wearing really thin and all the jokes directed at the freakish Napoleon character start feeling overworked (in any case, the jokes were never different from the geek-genre conventional ones). The uncomfortable humor comes from laughing at Napoleon and the other misfits, with the grossest yuks coming when the school bullies repeatedly slam Napoleon into the lockers. But the filmmaker seemed to have second thoughts about such cruel humor and tried to temper it with some affection for his loser hero. This effort to make Napoleon into a more tender character seemed disingenuous, and the contrived results come without being earned.

There’s also a false ending to contend with, as after the final credits roll by there’s an unnecessary five minute skit about Kip’s marriage to the mannish looking LaFawnduh. The supposedly happy ending takes away from the shoestring budgeted indie’s initial edginess. In this one-joke idea for a film, I never got the impression the filmmaker cared what happened to any of his characters. But by eventually playing it PC safe, we are led to believe that things will work out just fine in the Western rural wasteland for dead-beat Napoleon and all the other misfits (when all prior evidence seemed to the contrary). I think this idea of having everyone’s wildest dreams come true, which is the feel-good message left, is as unlikely a scenario as Pedro being elected Preston’s school president. This film is more about scoring points over Jon Heder’s unique performance than in telling a meaningful story. If you dug the performance, then you probably also liked the film. I did like Heder’s performance, but only up to a point. I was never able to feel comfortable with the film’s lack of social consciousness or the way it crassly presented the misfits. It didn’t have the same integrity for the misfits or concern for social issues Todd Solondz had in Welcome to the Dollhouse, a film it most closely resembles.


REVIEWED ON 8/14/2004 GRADE: B –