Overview: A socially-awkward teenager with a bizarre family tries to help his new equally-awkward friend win a school election. Fox Searchlight; 2004; Rated PG; 82 Minutes.
Straight Sadness: In Napoleon Dynamite, there is no practical application of any traditional joke format. No satire. No build-up to an unexpected punch line. Nothing particularly funny in a situational sense. And no non-sequitur. Only sad, sad sequitur. Were these characters positioned in a more zany circumstance, some interactive context in which the actors could bounce their assigned eccentricities off of one another, I may have found reason to laugh. But as it is presented, Uncle Rico and Chip are just manifestations of middle age loneliness, unhappiness, and regret. Pedro and LaFawnduh just offer director/writer Jared Hess opportunities at racist humor that he doesn’t have the courage to see through to a punch line. And Napoleon… Holy shit. Napoleon. Burdened by Jon Heder’s complete lack of comedic timing and the strangest interpretation of a character that I can remember, Napoleon is given no chance at overcoming his most prominent obstacle. Napoleon is stupid. Not naïve or humorously ignorant to surrounding circumstances. Just stupid. Again, not funny. Just sadness.
A Frustrating Positive: Guest spot specialist Diedrich Bader excels at the comedic formula that this movie should have been aiming for. In less than five minutes of screen-time, he provides Napoleon Dynamite’s funniest stretch as Rex, founder of Rex Kwon Do.Bader might have been better utilized as comedy coach for the entire staff rather than brief cameo.
A Confusing Reputation: In the decade since its release, Napoleon Dynamite has established considerable stature in a crowded room of quirky modern comedies. What is astonishing—astonishing to me, if not to the film’s army of fans—is that Napoleon Dynamite has gathered its reputation without one apparent punch line. The film insists on its only joke, the thinly-stretched assertion that this quirky cast of characters creates 82 minutes worth of funny. Many have responded to my distaste for this movie: “We all knew that kid in high school, that’s why it’s funny.” And that first part is true. I can compare the characters in this movie to people I have actually known. But I wouldn’t laugh at those people either, because I’m not an asshole.
Watch Instead: Successful movies that focus on awkward characters with performances and circumstances that establish hilarity: Hot Rod, Foot Fist Way, Talladega Nights.