Let us die young or let us live forever / We don't have the power but we never say never," mourns the '80s techno group Alphaville over the bushy heads of high school slow-dancers in Napoleon Dynamite. "Sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip / The music's for the sad men," continues the piped-in song, "Forever Young," before the refrain: "Forever young, I want to be forever young / Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?"
Does co-writer and director Jared Hess really want to be forever young? His film, one of the most blissfully abstract comedies in recent memory, seems unstuck in time, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. His title hero, Napoleon Dynamite, has the name of a character that sounds equal parts blaxploitation and comic-book hero. And where are people in more dire need of heroes than in the lockered halls of high school, where danger lurks in the form of the aggressively physical (bullies) and the aggressively social (popular kids). As John Hughes reminded us time and time again in the '80s, life can be hell if you're not with the in crowd.
Of course, look at just about every Hughes film, and you smell a cop-out: the geek selling out to fit in, or to get the girl or guy, or all of the above. Hughes always seemed to tap his inner Anthony Michael Hall before realizing, deeper down, he wanted to be Andrew McCarthy.
Neither Jared Hess, nor his doppelganger, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), have such identity crises. They both know all too well what Alphaville knew, that sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip indeed. But there are classmates to protect, love triangles to negotiate, idiot relatives to endure, skills to learn, battles to win, and llamas to feed. Yup, Napoleon Dynamite can save the world -- defined here as Preston High School in Preston, Idaho -- without forgetting who he is. He's going to live forever, or die young trying.
Like much of the rest of the film, he looks like he stepped out of a time machine covering anywhere from the late '70s to the early '80s. His blond Brillo pad of a hairdo has successfully fended off any attempts at being parted, his glasses cover half his face, his tucked-in T-shirts are the pride of any silkscreen artist, his pants adhere to a strict expandable-waist theme, and his moon boots look more like slippers. He's rarely far from his Mead Organizer notebook (remember those?), in which he doodles such characters as a "liger," a combination lion and tiger. A fashion statement is a knit tie (remember those?).
As one promo for the movie notes, Napoleon is a man who's out to prove he has nothing to prove. His mannerisms are little bursts of exasperation at a misunderstanding (and slightly inferior) world. His sighs, exhaled with closed eyes, sound like tires deflating, and his arsenal of effusive language includes "gosh!" and "flip" (almost like the f-word). When life is good, it's "sweet" and "yessssssssss." His body movements come in sudden bursts of inspiration. After he lopes to the back of the school bus one morning, a curious schoolmate inquires, "What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" He shoots back, "Whatever I feel like I wanna do -- gosh!" He looks away and produces a toy action figure, ties it to a string and drags it along on the road, behind the bus.
In a sense, Napoleon is a compulsive liar; he creates girlfriends out of borrowed photographs and reputations out of thin air. He knows who he is, but sometimes has to articulate it in a way that normal human beings can understand. So he bullshits.
Seemingly disconnected subplots abound, including a grandmother (Sandy Martin) who disappears as soon as she enters the movie, an even dorkier older brother (Aaron Ruell) mired in an online relationship, a visiting uncle Rico (Jon Grief), who can't seem to move beyond life after 1982 and who is a continuing source of embarrassment for Napoleon. Look closer, and these are people who are often more than we think they are. Even Napoleon's new friend, transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez), and their mutual love interest, Deb (Tina Majorino), don't seem to have much in the way of personality -- until they come into Napoleon's orbit.
As you might have guessed about Napoleon Dynamite, there's not much of a plot -- simply, life in high school is an ongoing struggle for survival. Asking girls out and avoiding bullies can be a major energy suck and requires, as Napoleon puts it, "skills." As the Alphaville song reminds us, "It's so hard to get old without a cause / I don't want to perish like a fading horse / Youth's like diamonds in the sun / And diamonds are forever."
That Napoleon Dynamite can live forever, and maybe even get the girl along the way, is a minor miracle -- like the film itself.
- Sweet hook-up: Napoleon (Jon Heder) gives his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) a ride into town in the quirky comedy Napoleon Dynamite.