Napoleon Dynamite is a movie trying desperately to be quirky and succeeding. It’s weird, odd, and everything the trailers might lead you to expect, but seems to have no loftier goal than being freakish. The movie lacks any real heart or emotion and thus fails to connect on any sort of deeper level.
The titular Mr. Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a High School nerd, only not the type that will ever go on to something greater. He’s a nerd without any brains, making him more of a pathetic loser than bona fide super-geek. Everything about him is pathetic, from his curly brown hair to his obsession with ligers, to his tendency to wear his pants at Steve Urkel levels. He has no friends, though he doesn’t seem to be lonely. Still, after a particularly difficult day of beatings, he meets a new student named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and the two quickly become friends, sort of. They don’t really have much of a relationship, but they stand next to each other in various social situations. Pedro, being more Mexican than nerd, gives Napoleon bland advice on women and bike jumping, while Napoleon helps soft spoken Pedro deliver a romantic cake to the woman of his dreams.
Napoleon seems fairly unaffected by his surrounding. Things like rejections and bullying leave him unmarred as he crawls into a mental fantasy world of unicorns and nun chucks. He’s uninvolved and so we the audience feel pretty uninvolved. There’s little all that redeeming about Napoleon, he’d be hard to root for in any situation, assuming he had any goals, which he doesn’t. At some point Pedro runs for class president, and Napoleon seems somewhat interested in helping him. But his interest seems only passing, another extension of a nerd-boy fantasy world that we just aren’t allowed to be part of.
There are a lot of reasons to find movies funny, but I’m never comfortable when asked to chuckle simply because I feel superior to someone. Napoleon Dynamite gropes about for humor by watching Napoleon and his equally pathetic family do things which label them as inferior. It asks you to respond with the kind of reprehensible joy that a bully might receive from giving his victim a swirly. It appeals to people who live their lives attempting to be “cool” and thus gives them an obviously lesser human being to deride. Wrapping all that in a quirky, independent film package only makes liking the movie itself seem that much cooler.
Dynamite flails around at obvious gags involving the mispronunciation of Spanish words, and cliché scenes of nerd dancing. This approach is neither original nor exciting, but is occasionally mildly amusing. Napoleon isn’t trying to achieve anything, isn’t going anywhere, and doesn’t seem to be interested in anything, so why should we be interested in him? His journey is one of stolid stupidity and steady unacceptability. Director Jared Hess pushes Napoleon’s stupidity as far as it can go in pursuit of cheap laughs, but achieves nothing that isn’t easily forgettable.