I've Got a Napoleon Dynamite Complex
review by matthew webber
Napoleon Dynamite is hard to like.
When the titular character plays tetherball with himself, stuffs tater tots into his pocket, and draws a liger - a half lion/half tiger - in his notebook, he's supposed to be quirky and disarmingly charming. And he is, from his appearance (white boy's afro, second-grade-style moon boots) to his speech (none of his exclamations, whether angry or surprised, happen in the beat in which you expect them). Indeed, newcomer Jon Heder plays Napoleon as one of the most idiosyncratic characters in all of fictionalized art, a feat I would have admired once, back when I was an aspiring high school fiction writer inspired by J.D. Salinger.
The problem with personal tics is they can quickly become annoying. And here they do, almost immediately. You're supposed to feel sorry for this high school outcast - but I, too, would have shunned him in high school. Sorry. The kid's personality is just that grating. Yes, jocks give him headlocks and he plays by himself during gym class - but he himself is prone to taunting his pet llama and throwing campaign buttons at his fellow students. The kid is like a pesky little brother, which of course he is. (His brother buttons up the top button of his polo shirts while chatting up his hip-hop soul mate, LaFawnduh, online.)
Not only did I find the guy difficult to tolerate, I started to dislike myself for disliking him. Since his name is the name of the film, clearly I was supposed to root for him. And if I couldn't, then wouldn't I be as bad as Napoleon's tormentors, the same archetypal popular assholes who didn't beat me up but didn't exactly invite me to their keg parties either? All my laughter throughout the film's first half was the nervous kind. Did I like Napoleon and Napoleon or not?
Maybe I just had to get to know him. Like all so-called high school weirdos, Napoleon is just misunderstood. His family situation helped shape his unique personality, with his dune buggy-riding grandma and his sleazy, plastics-selling Uncle Rico. I didn't warm up to Napoleon until he befriended a recent Mexican immigrant, Pedro, and his female equivalent, Deb (she sells handmade bracelets door-to-door and wears a ponytail on the side of her head), two other outcasts to whom nobody else takes the time to talk. Like all good high school comedies, this one even has a high school dance scene, and when Napoleon and Deb slow dance, their shared love of portraiture makes them seem less alone than they were before the song - here, the perfect "Time After Time."
When Napoleon is with his two friends, he relaxes, and he starts to seem kind of sweet, especially when he helps Pedro run a student body presidential campaign against the kind of girl everyone but her clique hated in high school, even though most of her clique hated her, too: the popular girl who is only popular because she's not as socially awkward as the losers - and she knows it, and she lets you know she knows it, which probably means she's the most socially awkward of all.
Casting Haylie Duff, tween star Hilary Duff's older sister, as Pedro's opponent was a stroke of genius, because there's nothing a misfit hates more than the MTV mainstream. It also helped align me with Napoleon, since it was either him or Lizzie McGuire's big sis, who has even less in common with me than Lizzie Borden does. She's pretty and perfect, except she's not, because she's a bitch. I started to empathize rather than just sympathize with Napoleon, and I started to remember all those times when I myself felt alone - like when I went to see Napoleon Dynamite on a Sunday afternoon by myself.
After an hour and half of laughing at Napoleon's somewhat episodic mishaps, I realized my frequent laughs had become less nervous. Jared Hess, the film's writer and director, and Heder had won me over. Hess seems to have studied all of the masters of the high school and/or outcast film genres, with his '80s Donnie Darko soundtrack and his Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) way of framing every scene like it's a painting. Further, like Anderson and Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), he likes his characters as much as he likes to poke fun at them.
And Heder is so tenacious I fear he'll get typecast for the rest of his career. People will probably think he is Napoleon Dynamite, kind of like how I think Woody Allen is the Woody Allen character he always plays. At once, Napoleon is like everyone you've ever met and no one, and maybe he's like yourself. He's a little bit Screech from Saved by the Bell, and a little bit Holden Caulfield. And he'll damn near win you over.
Napoleon Dynamite is hard to dislike, and probably worth rewatching.