Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Film Dunce: Napoleon Dynamite

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I'm not sure it's exactly a compliment being asked to contribute to this particular feature. I can only imagine the conversation that took place when this site's editors were considering writers for it:

Editor-in-Chief: "So which writer doesn't know shit about movies?"

Assistant editors (in unison): "Eric!"

If that's how it went down, there wouldn't be any objections from me. The list of "key" films I've never seen is frighteningly long. How long? Let's just say it wasn't difficult to find worthy candidates to write about.

I chose Napoleon Dynamite for a few reasons. As an Elvis Costello fan I wanted to know if it somehow related to Blood and Chocolate. It's been in the shrink wrap since it was given to me a few years ago and I wanted to finally figure out just what the fuck Vote for Pedro means. T-shirts with that phrase were everywhere in the middle part of this decade, usually worn by socially awkward types sporting self-satisfied smirks and who undoubtedly had a hard time getting laid.

So what does a film dunce like myself think of this movie? Not much, really. For all the catchphrases and annoying assholes who still impersonate Jon Heder's title character that the movie spawned, it is mildly amusing at best and satirical to a fault at worst. I will grant that the casting is excellent and the actors play their respective roles convincingly; in addition, these characters - or the inflated and exaggerated caricatures they represent - are quirky enough to give the movie some much needed charm. Heder rightly received praise for his depiction of the liger-drawing, tater-tot, um, toting and well-meaning Napoleon, but the supporting cast deserves mention for giving this movie a bit of additional color and personality.

But beyond that, the film's shtick gets old rather quickly and its humor is sometimes of the most basic and predictable kind; maybe this stuff was funny in 2004, but hell, in just six years' time it hasn't exactly aged like fine wine. Indeed, how many site gags and one-word exclamations does one movie really need? "But there are some great one-liners!" I can hear various fans of the movie screaming right now. True, but all those witticisms that for some reason remain a staple of drunken conversations are mostly buried among a shitpile of banal and clich├ęd humor. To wit: a crotch-zapping time machine, the occasional bicycle pratfall, an excruciatingly lengthy solo dance sequence, bad wigs and even worse haircuts and various physical abnormalities (slack jaws, slow speech, the reaction times of a sea mollusk) that suggest every character descended from the same branch of the Hapsburgs' family tree are what pass for comedy. These might be worth a chuckle or two, but in general the movie's sense of humor doesn't make me regret waiting five years to watch it.

Napoleon Dynamite also fails in walking that fine line between satire and pastiche. At its core the movie is about friendship. It also examines what it's like to be an outsider, particularly in those formative high school years, but its various character types - the cyber-obsessed weirdo, the pervert uncle dreaming of his glory days and concocting idiotic get-rich-quick schemes, the jocks, the cheerleader queen of the school, the rabble of geeks, human punching bags and other undesirables - are so over-exaggerated as to make them both inaccessible and unbelievable. Clearly much of the film hinges on this premise, but all too often it's impossible to care about Napoleon, Pedro and Deb because they don't even seem remotely human. Such lack of realistic characters might make for easy comedy, but it does little to make these various types seem like anything other than freak show specimens.

Though it may be too harsh to dismiss Napoleon Dynamite as a formulaic high school flick masquerading as something more complex and unconventional, ultimately the movie's left-of-center veneer is a smokescreen. Folks love a happy ending, and this movie has that in spades: the slow-witted Pedro wins the school presidential election, while Napoleon and Deb become tetherball buddies. Yet by the movie's conclusion I'd lost interest in these characters, thanks to the film's overblown and implausible brand of satire. The sporadic laughs the movie induces are simply too infrequent to hide its flaws, regardless of what those faithful Vote for Pedro t-shirt wearers will still contend.

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