“Napoleon Dynamite” is a gloriously quirky, hysterically funny ode to rural dullness that is probably the fairest, most accurate film representation that Preston, Idaho, will ever get.
First-time director Jared Hess, who co-wrote with his wife Jerusha, lovingly mocks the denizens of his hometown, and of many other people’s hometowns, through the muted, unenthusiastic characters who inhabit the film. This is a place where culture, fashion and mustaches stopped developing in the 1970s, with the exception of some girls’ hairstyles, which managed to reach the mid-’80s. It’s a town that viewers will identify as thoroughly dorky, while the residents themselves are oblivious to their gaucheness.
Fans of the Coen brothers (“Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) will recognize the sort of lovable oddballs here, chief among them being the title character (played by Jon Heder), a high school senior who draws fantasy creatures, fancies himself a nun-chuck expert, and generally behaves with unselfconscious individuality. Napoleon lives with his 30-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a pasty, ambitionless fellow who maintains a long-distance Internet relationship with a woman in Detroit. When their grandmother is injured in an ATV accident, their uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to stay, bringing his attachment to his high school football glory days (i.e., 1982) and a number of stupid get-rich-quick schemes with him.
Meanwhile, Napoleon makes friends with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student from Mexico, helps him run for class president, and also attempts to find a date to The Big Dance. Apart from those minor threads, there is no plot to speak of; the narrative here is as insignificant as the town itself. This is a slice-of-life movie about a place where there is no life to slice.
And it’s a complete joy to watch. Hess, expanding on his short film “Peluca,” has created a wonderfully quaint, dull little town and a passel of entertaining characters to populate it. Heder, all droopy-eyed, slack-jawed and sleepy-sounding, is a riot as Napoleon, his faux-profanity and exasperated sigh earning laughs every time, along with his blissful unawareness of his own strangeness. (He knows he’s a little different from most kids, but he has no idea the extent to which it goes.) I don’t know what Heder will do with his career after this, but I’ll be surprised if he ever creates a character as sharp as Napoleon Dynamite.
Every performer acts with deadpan perfection, including Aaron Ruell as Kip, Efren Ramirez as the indefatigable Pedro, and Jon Gries as the uber-loser Rico. The dialogue is funny, the timing dead on, the physical humor nicely executed. There are no life-altering conflicts, and very little learning, growing or hugging. It’s one of the most agreeable, most likable films I’ve seen in a while. I noticed that even when I wasn’t laughing, I was still smiling, happy just to be there.
A- (1 hr., 26 min.; )