Moves By Matt: Napolean Dynamite

Usually this column consists of a review of a newly-released film. But this week I’ve made an exception for the sleeper hit of the summer, Napoleon Dynamite. The film hit the art houses way back in June, but through a plan of (intentional?) marketing genius has grown slowly and methodically from word of mouth out into the suburban theatres. So, you may be asking, why run the review now? My answer: the recent addition of the words “Napoleon” and “dynamite” to the list of shows at the Lawrence multiplex, where Dynamite now has a limited engagement. Debut writer-director Jared Hess’s film tells the tale of Napoleon Dynamite, a super-geek from the rural town of Preston, Idaho, and his exploits both at school (where his best friend Pedro is running for President) and at home (where his brother Kip hopes to meet his cyber-girlfriend and Uncle Rico sells Tupperware and waxes nostalgic about his glory days of high school football). Hess has created a small army of indelible main and supporting characters with a distinctly absurd series of scenes (one could almost deem them “merged vignettes”) that include running over Tupperware with an orange conversion van, feeding a llama and throwing steak at a bicyclist. Hess’ comedic sixth sense is so acute that the awkwardness of the dialogue feels utterly natural; there are no sweeping melodramatic monologues or heated discussions, only repeated sighing. The real-life frustration of being completely unable to express oneself seems constantly present in the script, a sort of continuous word vomit that is incredibly difficult to write and perform with the right combination of realism and humor. Despite the aesthetic merits of Hess’ dialogue, the variety of scenes at times seems aimless, just extra portraits of absurdity and awkwardness thrown in only for a gag. Hess has almost tried to do too much, expanding the script beyond a debut writer’s capabilities so that at times the plot rambles and stumbles forward, barely advancing anything except the film’s mood. The direction struggles with the same dichotomy as the writing, a mixture of sophomoric glee that attempts too much grandiosity for the constraints of the film (the rare landscape shots seem stilted and the pacing at times too inconsistent) and a youthfulness and adept naturalism that heightens the feeling that this really could be small-town Americana. Actors Jon Heder (Napoleon), Jon Gries (brother Kip), and Aaron Ruell (Uncle Rico) display the multiplicity of that America by taking various routes to realize the stark/reassuring/cruel futility of trying to escape. Napoleon is indelibly and endearingly strange but will always remain frustrated with the confines of Preston; Kip’s cyberdating is his only connection to a modern world that has mostly left him behind in a geeky, slide-rule dust; Rico’s attempts to recapture past glory fail so spectacularly that it becomes almost grotesque, his on-tape football his only strand of hope in a life that has never failed to come up short of its potential. That supporting character Deb must sell keychains to raise money for college and that Pedro’s cousins are the stereotypical portraits of Mexican-American tough guys is a testament to the raw and unflinchingly hilarious portrait of the absurd workings of American life. Failure, stagnation, and embarrassment wait around each corner for these struggling souls, but Hess and the actors control and focus the action so precisely that the film never becomes too pessimistic, only hilariously truthful. Nuance and comic grace, surprising poignancy and seriousness pervade the periphery of what is mainly a film about idiocy and eccentricity, adding texture and depth rarely found in the genre. And so, after all this rambling (fitting, considering the film itself), what is the point? The film rests on the complete absurdity and ridiculousness of rural American life, the unique chemistry that exists between outcasts and rejects in all their forms, and how the two combine to form the nostalgic and jovial failure of what most Prestonians would consider the American Dream. From the brilliant costuming (side ponytails, big glasses, neon workout clothes), which lends that sense of safety and style from the Reagan Era, to the presence of the cyberspace and entrepreneurship of Clintonian America, the film forms a sweeping but fleeting glance of America at its most prosperous and modern. This sort of calm before the storm is a postcard of an America that could afford to worry about dances and Tupperware and online dating and high school football. Wartime America forgets about that period not -so-long ago when the most important thing on everybody’s minds was a white stain on a blue dress and a guy named Ken Starr. And that is why this tragicomedy is so wonderfully summed up by Uncle Rico, who stretches like the American imagination for those illusions of grandeur and wealth, glory and pride, and by Napoleon, who seems like he will remain in the brilliant and uproarious pedantry of our small towns. Overall Grade: 6-