A lot of really talented directors/writers have a hard time finding a balance between endearingly quirky and artificially eccentric. As much as I love Wes Anderson films, it often feels like Anderson is trying too hard to make his characters seem original by making them insufferably and unrealistically off-beat. Sometimes it works, Rushmore; sometimes it doesn’t, Moonrise Kingdom (though that film has its brilliant moments as well). Juno suffered from the same problem because as realistic as Juno’s problems are, there are no actual teenage girls that talked like her. At least, there weren’t until that film came out and inspired girls to speak like Ellen Page. Jared Hess’s breakout directorial debut, Napoleon Dynamite, has become a bit of a modern cult classic, but I have always found it to be so bad that it’s nearly unwatchable and that Hess’s characters are almost all artificially eccentric and not in the slightest endearingly quirky.
Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a mouth-breathing, chronic-lying nerd with a penchant for drawing pencil doodles of fictional creatures. He lives at home with his grandmother and his 32-year old, effeminate brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Kip spends his day chatting on line with his internet girlfriend Lafanda, whose reality is a legitimate question for most of the film. Napoleon gets bullied at school and his only two friends are transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and shy Deb (Big Love‘s Tina Majorino). When Napoleon’s grandmother is in a dune buggy accident, his creepy uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is sent to look after him and Kip. Rico longs for his glory days on the football field in high school (although the film implies that he was only a backup quarterback), and his endless schemes to make money and glory only serve to nearly ruin Napoleon’s life at every turn.
Jon Heder gives arguably one of the worst lead performances thus far for this blog. I could go back and look at every single movie I’ve reviewed (I probably won’t), but I imagine I would be hard-pressed to find a more unbelievable and grating performance than his. Anyone who’s seen Gentleman Broncos knows that subtlety isn’t the strong suit of any part of any Jared Hess film, and he was unable to coax a life-like performance from the wooden and slack-jawed Jon Heder. No one on this actual planet talks like Napoleon. You consistently feel like you’re watching a performance in a student film where they’re trying to give an example of how to be as awful as humanly possible in a performance. And the actors playing Kip and Pedro are not remotely any better.
The only two performances in the film that make the acting in the movie bearable are Tina Majorino as Deb and Jon Gries as Uncle Rico. I remember when I first watched this film that I thought Tina Majorino gave the worst performance of the whole movie. Now, I can easily say it was the best. Whereas Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Aaron Ruell turn awkwardness into camp and stiff artificiality, Tina Majorino makes Deb seem like the shy but sensitive girl we all knew in high school. She just dives right into the part and doesn’t hold back. In fact, had the film been about Deb, it might have actually been a decent film. And Jon Gries becomes one of the only consistent sources of humor in the film as Uncle Rico. He’s the only actor with a real sense of comic timing, and he finds the creepiness and despair that both lie at the heart of Rico.
I’ll keep this review short because I simply don’t like this movie, and nothing I can say about it will persuade its legions of fans that it’s unwatchable drivel. Let me then close with this. Some films are so bad that they’re brilliant. Rocky Horror Picture Show is objectively an awful movie, but the fun and camp at it’s heart makes it a bizarre classic. Jared Hess tries to make a film that is so bad it’s great with Napoleon Dynamite, but instead, the movie remains almost entirely so bad that it’s a trainwreck. The film has its moments that made me laugh but I could count them on one hand, and the one truly great sequence (Napoleon’s final dance number) isn’t enough to make up for an hour and a half of a film that is too painfully awkward to watch and not in that good Freaks and Geeks type of way.
Final Score: C-