Over the years, I have seen a lot of indie movies come and go at a particular art house cinema about 45 minutes away, but only one movie, to my knowledge, has ever spent an entire summer and then part of fall there, and that honor goes to “Napoleon Dynamite.” That movie came and wouldn’t leave, probably because so many people went back to see it multiple times. Unlike lots of indies, it was not destined to be seen just by a very choosy group of moviegoers or only made accessible to the mainstream once it snagged an Oscar nomination. I also noticed that, unlike a lot of movies, indies or not, people tended to have very strong reactions either way after viewing it, claiming it as one of the funniest movies they’d ever seen or saying something along the lines of, “Well, I went and saw it – but I still don’t get why half the audience was in stitches most of the time.” Critics also had polar reactions either loving the movie or calling it mean-spirited. I guess all that proves is that some things really are in the eye of the beholder.
In “Napoleon Dynamite,” Jon Heder plays the titular hero (or antihero, it’s up to you), an apathetic Midwestern teenager who, like Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries,” begins the movie with a frizzy perm and glasses, but does not get a makeover and wind up with the most popular member of the opposite sex like “TPD.” Nor is he the kind of Hollywood-friendly male outcast, who is usually along the lines of an alt-music-listening, poetry -writing, acoustic-guitar-strumming outcast. Alas, for those who prefer that kind, Jon is more the llama-taunting, Tater-Tot-hoarding, action-figure-playing-with, liger-doodling outcast. He is definitely more likely to woo a girl by drawing her a picture (and then bragging how “realistic” it is to her face) than say, hold up a boombox outside her house in the rain.
But just as you may be thinking that Jon is one of the biggest geeks to ever grace the screen, you meet his thirty-something brother, Kip, (Aaron Ruell). The two of them live with their grandmother (the fate of their parents is never alluded to), who, because of the kind of whimsical accident indie movie characters are prone to, sends their uncle (Jon Gries) to watch them. This makes sense because given from what we see of Aaron’s day (trolling the Internet for hot babes), someone has to play the adult. Jon is an aging former high school football hero whose ambition is to buy a time machine to go back to that period in his life, and to fund this, he goes door-to-door selling herbal breast enhancements, which does not exactly make him a positive male role model, but at least he has an income of sorts. However, his choice of profession and general obnoxiousness prompts Jon to urge him to get lost as he is lowering his social standing at school. And even the most charitable viewer will find themselves thinking, how could it get any possibly lower?
At school, surprisingly enough, Jon is unpopular, but things get better when he meets a new student (Efren Ramirez) who has a “sweet” bike, is (sort of) good at hooking up with chicks, including their classmate, Tina Majorino, who also sells things door-to-door, and eventually runs for class president in order for the movie to have some semblance of plot. Jon gets a crush on Tina, though they have a kind of unique courtship, and Efren goes up against the most popular girl at school, and the results are as close to a slow-clap speech at the prom about how we are all, in fact, outcasts of a sort, as you’re going to get in this movie.
As for Aaron, he finally meets his Internet babe in the flesh and gets a makeover that has to be seen to be believed. And their grandmother returns, presumably healed. I’m not sure everyone in the movie really learns a traditional kind of life lesson, but then, that’s part of its charm. For some people, that is.