Napoleon Dynamite and its ilk
Few movies make me actually angry for people falling for the condescending crap being thrown at them, but Napoleon Dynamite manages it. It’s not just that there’s no point to the film. It’s just so self conscious and so deliberate in its attempts to be “weird” and retro. Traits are established for the characters and go nowhere. Each actor is giving a stunt performance. From Jon Gries as the uncle wearing an atrocious wig, but no mention is made of it, on down to the smallest nuance. The movie seems to take place currently (Napoleon’s 32 year old nerdy brother, who looks and sounds like Thomas Lennon putting on a voice, has an internet girlfriend), but the styles of the homes are all 1982, and Gries’ character is obsessed with 1982, and even buys a time machine trying to go back to that year. And if you notice, Napoleon even has a Dragonslayer movie poster (which was released in 1981), even though the idea is that he’s in high school, and shown as so out of touch that he probably wouldn’t be aware of the film. But everyone else in school, other than Napoleon and his love interest (Tina Majorina, the little girl from Corrina, Corrina) dresses “currently,” so clearly the idea is to make them all out to be really dorky for a laugh. When they go to buy a suit for the prom, the only one that seems to be up for display in the entire store is a hideous brown one which will only accentuate Napoleon’s gawkiness. But no one else at the prom is dressed this badly.
Consider the opening scene: Napoleon, gangly, squinting and highly jewfroed (and who looks like a 30 year old pretending to be 17) gets on a school bus, where he is amidst about sixty 10-11 year olds. He skulks to the back and sits in the very last seat. The kid next to him asks, “Napoleon, what are you gonna do today?” Angrily (without reason), he responds, “Whatever the hell I feel like!” So he proceeds to open up his imitation Trapper notebook and pull out an action figure which is tied to a string. He undoes all the string, opens the window, and throws the figure out the window. The figure is still attached to the string so it drags behind the bus while Napoleon holds the string. The kid watches the figure through the back of the bus, but Napoleon just hold the string and never even turns around. Why does he do this? For whose benefit? All he is doing is holding a string but the director keeps cutting back to the figure being dragged behind the bus in the dirt road. So it seems as if Napoleon is doing it for our amusement, because it’s such an odd “kooky” thing to do. I’m not sure what pleasure there is to be had by holding a string out the window.
Each scene follows this pattern. Characters do something intentionally strange so we will laugh at it, but it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose, not for them anyway, and they gain nothing by doing these things. Napoleon has a Hispanic friend named Pedro (since he is the only non-white person in the school, the principal makes several points of pointing out his ethnicity and being condescending as if he doesn’t understand American culture, but often the director plays Pedro’s “Hispanicness” for laughs as well, as if his thick accent and often his culture, in and of itself, was hilarious) who in one scene starts complaining about how hot it is and goes home to get better. We then get Pedro’s explanation the next day, that he tried soaking in the bath and various other ways to cool off, and nothing worked. He realized that it was his hair that was making him so hot. So he shaved it all off. But we never see his bald head since he hides it in a hooded sweatshirt. The solution is of course to get him a wig, which goes without saying is a ridiculous looking 70’s newsman hairpiece that would seem just right in Anchorman. And Pedro wears this wig for the remainder of the film, which I guess is supposed to be funny. But all I wondered was, did we really just go through all of that just for a running wig joke? Because obviously a thick wig would be much hotter than natural hair, so it couldn’t have really been to solve the heat problem.
Ebert pointed out in his review about how it reminded him of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and the intention is quite obvious. It is Solondz’s film without wit or insight or compassion or any thought about providing interesting characters. The movie is really presented like Tod Browning’s Freaks, with the characters showing off their various deficiencies one at a time, except, we aren’t shown how they cope with their problems (or use it to their advantage), and we just see what a nerd Napoleon is over and over. He’s unpleasant, witless, talentless, charmless, desperate, but he’s apparently our hero because of screenwriter contrivances. One character gets angry at him because they are embarrassed by something Napoleon’s uncle did to them, and then forgives him because of an extended silly dance Napoleon does in front of the school, not because he apologized or even had a conversation with them clarifying why they are upset at him. So it is quite apparent that the movie isn’t supposed to be realistic (why would someone running for class president be forced to perform a sketch after their speech as part of the proceedings?), but it doesn’t really qualify as satire since the target seems to be who we are rooting for. The music, an intentionally tacky Casio-style score, only plays up this mocking further. Imagine American Movie, but without the lead’s enthusiasm and just a concentration on how pathetic he is, and apparently how funny these people are for being poor and out of the pop culture loop.
The audience around me kept looking around to see if it was ok to laugh, which, after the first ten minutes, they decided it was. I sat stone faced the entire time, wondering what the charm is in watching a spaz be a spaz for a whole movie. I asked a couple, after the film, who I had heard yucking it up the entire time behind me, what they liked about it. I pointed out that the story makes no sense, and neither does anything that the characters do. They both said they didn’t care about the story, but they loved Napoleon, because they knew people just like that. Which I don’t believe at all.
A perfect explanation may be something a friend of mine said after seeing The Royal Tenenbaums and loathing it (something that happened to me the second time I saw it, and found it incredibly dull, especially the way each character needed to have their introduction accompanied by the kooky book they had each written), compared to Rushmore, which he loved. He said: “Rushmore is great because it is organically weird. The Royal Tenenbaums is a chore to sit through because it is trying to be weird.” Napoleon Dynamite makes a non-stop effort of trying to be weird.
I just noticed that the movie is apparently an expansion of a 10 minute short that the director made with the same actor in the lead and same story. It certainly should have stayed that brief, as Napoleon Dynamite is quite padded with awkward pauses and characters standing around trying to spontaneously create humor via inactivity. And it’s still only 82 minutes. Though they have added a very odd and non-sensical wedding sequence, after the credits, that like the rest of the movie, seems disconnected from anything that occurred before it.
The unofficial sequel has been made!
It is called Eagle vs. Shark and the and I took in a test screening earlier this evening. It stars Jemaine Clement (the left side of the photo) of the hysterical New Zealand folk/rap parody band Flight of the Conchords (now that I’m in the Future of 2009 and not 2006, I’m happy to say that the Flight of the Conchords TV show is hilarious and a big success). And it is just as intolerable.
Basically, it is a duplicate of Napoleon Dynamite in virtually all ways, the same tone, the same characters, the same sucked the air out of the room feel, the same jokes, situations, and just as insufferable. People acting out and intending to be as obnoxious as they can with no rhyme or reason except for the fact that the camera is rolling. The director really loathing the characters but pretending he doesn’t for the amusement of the audience. The constant focus on what makes people unpleasant without any relief or introspection, just the thought that having them act “weird” will carry the day. The differences are minor, the profanity is awkwardly siphoned in which will garner it an R rating* so only adults will be able to see it, and it takes place in New Zealand as opposed to the middle of the USA. The same strange plot and time inconsistencies that plagued Napoleon are prevalent, the focus on animals and newfangled gadgets, and the bored way that everyone speaks is all the same.
The reasons I couldn’t stand Napoleon Dynamite were myriad, it seemed to condescend to its own characters and pander to the audience. It made its subjects not just unpopular but impossible to tolerate. They weren’t nerdy, they, especially Napoleon, needed diagnosis. To laugh at it would be like laughing at retarded children for being retarded. Both Eagle vs. Shark and Napoleon have the same issues, they think that because nerds aren’t able to be well liked by the majority, that they can’t have fun at all. There’s a scene in Eagle which mirrors virtually every one in Napoleon; Jemaine and the lead character (a female obviously modeled on Jane Adams in Happiness, with a touch of Dawn Weiner from Welcome to the Dollhouse) are at a party where they have to dress up like animals, which Jemaine is hosting. They express no joy in any of this, not the other adults or other children there. It isn’t about trying to remain “cool” and not get too excited, it looks like everyone upped their Valium intake. They then play a Mortal Kombat style game for the right to be champion. Again, despite the supposed enthusiasm of the situation, everyone appears to be lobotomized, glazed looks in their eyes and deadened ways of speaking. It isn’t deadpan. It’s just dead. Is the idea that those who aren’t cool live their lives virtually in a coma? Even dorks who play Dungeons and Dragons enjoy the actual playing of the game. Eagle vs. Shark goes on and on like this for the hour my girlfriend and I sat through (we were supposed to be in the focus group, but walking out makes you ineligible, I can’t really make suggestions that they change the tone anyway, that’s the way the movie is going to be) and every minute will seem like an eternity for those not on board for watching Napoleon Dynamite at 30.
Now I’m a big fan of Flight of the Conchords, and I was rooting for this film, but I would have walked out in five minutes had anyone else been the lead (I made it to minute 45). They sap the natural energy and goofiness that Jemaine has, give him an ungainly mole and awful hair, that it actually became more depressing that it wasn’t someone as naturally uncharismatic as Jon Heder playing the role.
*There’s an intensely unfunny scene where Jemaine calls his sister a bitch and she calls him a cockhole that goes on for over a minute. There’s no real explanation for it, that is the joke.
In terms of my critique, I don’t like criticizing films that are still in the test process, but this movie appears to be finished, and no amount of tinkering will ever change the irksome tone.