“I caught you a delicious bass.” —Napoleon Dynamite
Early in the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite, a phone conversation takes place between the eponymous hero, a mouth-breathing high-schooler played by Jon Heder, and his mustachioed 33-year-old brother Kip, played by Aaron Ruell. Napoleon has just gotten beaten up by some bullies, who were decidedly unmoved by his tall tale of wolverine hunting in Alaska, and he wants to be taken home. On the other end of the line, Kip is busy grating a foot-long block of cheddar over tortilla chips and can’t be bothered; as a half-measure, Napoleon asks that Kip at least bring him some Chapstick, because his lips “hurt real bad.” The exchange ends in a détente: Heder hangs up and goes back to the dead-eyed, slack-jawed exasperation he carries throughout the entire movie, and Kip presumably returns to his nachos. Then it’s on to the next thing.
What is this scene about? What is Napoleon Dynamite about? I ask these questions only half-rhetorically. I finally caught up to it this week, after the pleadings of many die-hard cultists (and against the warnings of an equally fervent band of haters), and it left me genuinely flummoxed, as if it were a dog whistle only some can hear. I’ve written 77 entries for the New Cult Canon column so far, and done my best to illuminate cult phenomena—or should-be cult phenomena—with as much authority as I can muster, but Napoleon Dynamite is the first time I’ve felt like I’m looking from the outside in, trying to figure out what, exactly, has made people respond so strongly to such an odd, gawky, mirthless little quirkfest. To me, the film remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as Napoleon’s default gaze.
Perhaps some of the film’s eccentricities are explained by its status as outsider art. Director Jared Hess, who co-wrote the script with his wife Jarusha, is a Mormon who matriculated at Brigham Young University and currently resides in Salt Lake City, which could be considered a hotbed for cinema only for its proximity to Sundance. The action takes place in Preston, Idaho, a small town (and now unlikely tourist destination) in the state’s southeast corner that seems blanketed in wood paneling and airbrushed T-shirts—at least if the movie is to be believed. Add to that a family-friendly PG-rating, polished by “friggin’,” “gosh,” and other swallowed expletives, and this isn’t the sort of indie that’s regularly bankrolled by a Manhattanite’s trust fund. It’s like the reverse image of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos: One is squeaky-clean and the other a monument to filth, but both conspicuously don’t belong.
With his Brillo-pad ’fro, his ’80s computer-programmer glasses, his moon boots, and a T-shirt collection that looks like it was gleaned from whatever carnivals have passed through town, Heder’s Napoleon is an outcast at Preston High School. (And this is a place where even the most popular kids look like they’d be outcasts at any school outside the Idaho-Utah nexus.) His tall, awkward gait makes him an unmistakable target for bullies, and he naturally retreats into quiet habits such as stringing an action figure out the school-bus window or doodling fearsome creatures like a liger, a lion/tiger crossbreed. Back home, his brother Kip nurtures a surely imaginary relationship online, while his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a would-be quarterbacking great turned traveling Tupperware salesman, has taken over temporary guardianship from his grandmother. There’s also Deb (Big Love’s Tina Majorino), a sweet, prim girl with vast reserves of handcrafted key-chains, a ponytail jutting from the side of her head, and a soft spot for Napoleon.
The plot, as far as it goes (and it doesn’t go far at all), centers around Napoleon’s attempt to get new student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) elected president of the student council. The odds are long against the glum and incommunicative Pedro, who’s far less invested in his political fortunes than his new friend, and far less visible than bubbly popular girl Summer (Haylie Duff). But here’s Napoleon anyway, detailing the attributes that will define Pedro’s candidacy—and giving this otherwise listless slice-of-geeklife a third act and the illusion of forward momentum:
Napoleon Dynamite defies easy classification, but Keith Phipps described it to me as “Wes Anderson’s Gummo,” which perfectly summarizes the film’s mix of ambling, underclass regionalism and obsession with homespun bits of décor. Before Pedro’s political ambitions (of a kind) move things along, the film seems content just to spin its wheels indefinitely, cataloging all the little eccentricities and aphorisms and doodles that constitute life in Preston. The inventory of minor comic details is never-ending: A vintage Trapper Keeper, one-man tetherball, a casserole with flies buzzing over it, a top-loading VHS player, an orange Dodge camper van, a personal glamour photography studio, a “Pegasus Xing” sign, Velcro shoes and beehive hair-dos, a dune-buggy, and even a fucking alpaca tethered to a fence. If nothing else, the world of Napoleon Dynamite is fully realized and almost perversely fussed-over in every single corner of the frame. But to what end? What’s the takeaway from this film, other than a repository of offbeat stuff?
As a logline, “Wes Anderson’s Gummo” sounds like a potentially excellent movie to me, but Hess doesn’t tap into the deep reservoir of melancholy that Anderson’s films do, and as much as I dislike Harmony Korine’s oeuvre, at least there’s some shred of concern for a forgotten subset of misdirected American youth. Napoleon Dynamite, on the other hand, resides entirely in the town of Indieville, U.S.A., a place cloistered off not only from the real world, but from any authentic emotion. That’s why I find the film so weirdly estranging: Like Napoleon’s patented vacant stare, it’s a cold, distancing affair with nothing going on behind the attenuated surface. Hess’ directorial style could generously be called deadpan, but more accurately, it’s simply dead; until the big speeches and skits at the end—which recall sequences from superior films like Election and Donnie Darko—his flat vignettes stumble into each other in clumsy succession. That said, the obligation to take the movie somewhere in the third act leads to a few winning moments, including a big payoff to the “D-Qwon’s Dance Moves” instructional video:
Despite a super-duper happy ending that injects some Hollywood-style “warmth” and positivity into the proceedings, the cult of Napoleon Dynamite remains inaccessible and inexplicable to me. Forget Anderson and Korine: A better analog might be Jay Leno, a comedian who’s built an empire by encouraging his audience to laugh at the yokels rather than identify with them. The characters in Hess’ film are like otherworldly figures in glassed-in display cases; these exotic beings sure do crazy things, yet we can walk away assured that they aren’t us. Sweet.
Next week: Head-On
October 8: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy
October 15: The Stepfather (1987)
October 22: Army Of Shadows