I didn’t see this movie from start to finish until March 2008, on a Netflix DVD. At the time, that felt like a major oversight. Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite was an instant icon, at least according to the “MTV Films” set. Along with Mean Girls, this was the most popular high school movie to come out while I was actually in high school. Despite this fact, and the fact that my little sister was a big fan, I only caught snippets on TV at first. Those snippets were funny enough to bolster my expectations. When I ultimately rated the film at 3 ½ stars, it was a mark of disappointment, but it was also chosen in deference to the film’s cult following. I could see why other people loved it so much. Since then, the cult has receded: “Vote for Pedro” hasn’t had anything like the shelf life of the Mean Girls memes. On the other hand, a film that gets alluded to in Kanye West songs definitely has some kind of cultural capital. So I gave Napoleon Dynamite a fresh look this week.
Napoleon fits somewhere in the cinematic lineage of high school misfits and weirdos like Carrie White, Max Fischer, and Donnie Darko. The plot and mise-en-scène of Napoleon Dynamite called all three of them to mind, and unfortunately the thought of their misadventures made the movie in front of me look dull by comparison. In director Jared Hess’s defense, this is an extremely deadpan comedy. It never abandons that tone for the sake of tugging on viewers’ heartstrings. In broad strokes, this is a coming-of-age story, with Napoleon claiming authority over his life and home, upending the high school caste system, and getting the girl. None of these things, however, is treated like a life-threatening crisis. Napoleon’s parents are absent and most likely dead. A conventional movie would lean on that fact for dramatic and emotional effect, but this one leaves it ambiguous. At its best, the movie is about very small things, like menial labor, or getting food on your face. Its observations, skewed as they are, ring true. The details of this particular subculture look very familiar to me.
As the movie loafs its way to completion, though, turning from Plot A, “The School Dance,” to Plot B, “The Class President Election,” the individual moments congeal into something downright soporific. Besides that, it stops being funny and starts to look mean-spirited. The characters in this film are cartoonishly mediocre human beings, which is fine, but mediocre people get awfully tedious when they keep insisting they’re actually great. Napoleon’s brother and uncle are the worst offenders in that respect. The hero’s own outsize self-confidence is much more endearing, thanks to Heder’s performance. The gawky body language and clipped outbursts are hard to forget, but what really strikes me is a look of weariness on his face that could pass for vacuity, or maybe the other way around. Napoleon is a stereotypical nerd, a motormouth with arcane interests and little sense of etiquette. Bullies push him against lockers, but they’re all mouth-breathers too. The closest the movie gets to social satire is in the way this lily-white society reacts to brown-skinned interlopers. But ultimately, the message never gets beyond Look how weird these people look in this context.
Napoleon isn’t as tortured as Carrie, as ambitious as Max, or as angry as Donnie. Likewise, Jared Hess doesn’t have the voyeuristic madness of Brian De Palma or the haunting sorrow of Richard Kelly. I’m not saying this movie needed to be like those movies, but I am saying that it’s too facile by half. Oh, and the third director, of course, is Wes Anderson. Napoleon Dynamite, with its symmetrical compositions and a clever title sequence made up of overhead shots, is definitely a quasi-Andersonian film. Anderson uses his eccentricities to experiment with human nature, to find the beating heart behind some of our darker impulses. Hess, on the other hand, is content to slather on the quirkiness, tying it together with the usual high school movie stuff, which may not be valorized but certainly isn’t critiqued either. I feel like I can’t watch this movie for long without mimicking the facial expressions of its hero.
Back in 2008, I hadn’t yet seen Carrie, Rushmore, or Donnie Darko. Now, apparently, they are the three Fates hovering over the life thread of a movie that was just minding its own business. The point is that I know so much more about movies now than I did then. Once, I would have thought of Napoleon Dynamite as a unique and delightful thing. Now, I recognize it as the kind of Sundance movie that makes a huge splash and then sinks to the bottom. I’ll lower the film’s grade to 2 ½ stars, the Limbo of movie star ratings. Nothing there arouses any vitriol from me, but I can’t bring myself to like any of it either. That feels about right.