Sunday, July 04, 2004


Complex? What complex?

If you loved Rushmore, Election and Ghost World, there’s a good chance you’ll like Napoleon Dynamite. While it’s not as great a film as those, it is very funny if it suits your particular sense of humor like it fit mine. However, if it doesn’t jive with your funny bone, you’ll probably hate it (I overheard one guy outside the theater call it one of the worst movies he’d ever seen, and then went on to say “Did you see Dodgeball? Now that was a funny movie.” Which is strange, because part way during Napoleon, I was thinking that it’d make for a good double feature paired with Dodgeball – a movie I also found to be pretty funny.)

The one thing that bothered me a little throughout the movie is that just about all the humor comes at the expense of these people and their way of life. I couldn’t help but feel like an urban elitist hipster looking down in judgment at a world so different from my own, which maybe says more about me than about the film itself (I felt the same conflicted guilt/amusement watching the documentary American Movie). Obviously I’m not the first to level this criticism, because the press notes preemptively refute it.

“While some might wonder if [writers Jared and Jerusha Hess] are sardonically mocking their own backgrounds, [producer Jeremy] Coon believes the comedy arises entirely from a spirit of deep affection for their characters’ wonderfully weird ways.”

That sounds all well and good, but the problem is that I didn’t think that “affection” came across in the movie. There’s not a single character you can empathize with because there’s not a single character you’re not laughing at. I had a similar quibble with Rushmore when I first saw it. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) are much like those nerdy kids in high school that you felt bad for because they were so marginalized, but when you got a chance to know them, you realized they were just not very likable people.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that all movies conform to the Hollywood rule of “likeable” protagonists, but as with many Hollywood rules, there may be a good reason for it: most movies with unlikable protagonists are insufferable (Troy, Chuck&Buck). To clarify, “likeable” doesn’t mean “infallible” – the movies are full of likeable anti-heroes – the trick is getting the audience to root for them even if they wouldn’t want to be their friend (check out my thoughts on Stanley Kowalski and Dr. Christian Troy).

The films of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor might on the surface appear to suffer from the same fault of mocking every character and their mid-western milieus, but Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt all feature flawed protagonists (who make horrible decisions and do unethical things and generally aren’t good people) that provide an “in” for the audience. In spite of their deeds – and in part thanks to the actors playing them - Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) are all very appealing characters – for two hours at least.

Anyway (I know it seems like I spend more time pointing out the minor flaws of movies I really like than talking about the good stuff), I laughed a lot at (with?) Napoleon Dynamite and so did most of the audience. It’s the kind of comedy that doesn’t always have clear punch lines, so people often laugh at different things and sometimes it might just be one person laughing. I have a feeling that in a few years, this is going to be one of those cult movies like Rushmore or The Big Lebowski that young hipsters won’t stop quoting (as evidenced by the already voluminous “Memorable Quotes” page on IMDb). So if keeping up with the young hipsters is something that’s important to you – or if you just want some good laughs, check out Napoleon Dynamite.


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