As I have often mentioned on this very site, I could be considered a nerd, for I’ve information DC, Image and Marvel and can quote company wide crossover events historical. I am also a snob, in that I look down upon people who merely wear glasses and don’t know the difference between a liger and a tion. But I do have an enormous fondness for my fellow nerds, geeks, dorks, dipwads and dweebs and therein is the difference between me and the people behind the film Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Now, I understand that it’s a cult film and that many of its boringly bizarre sequences were taken from the adolescent experiences of the filmmakers. But that doesn’t change the fact that it holds nothing but contempt for its protagonist and his friends, up until a wholly undeserved Super Happy Redemption Ending ©.

And even worse than that, it’s a poorly made film. Yes, it was the debut feature length film from director/cowriter Jared Hess and cowriter Jerusha Hess (who are also spouses). Yes, it was made for reportedly less than $400,000, using the real life Idaho town in which the director had gone to high school in. And yes, yes, yes, deadpan, understatement, all that. But none of that matters if there’s no empathy for the characters, no redemption or real conflict that doesn’t get resolved through a series of unexplained deus ex machine developments.

Napoleon Dynamite is a sluggishly paced movie, even by the undemanding standards of episodic indie comedies. For the vast majority of the movie, there’s nothing but ugly, ugly characters being unpleasant to each other, then saying something weird in a flat monotone that’s supposed to draw out a laugh. Even the opening sequence, a series of hideous, drab consumables (calling pasty devilled eggs, transparent burritos and corndogs food is a bit much) is a celebration of mundane ugliness that assumes that recognizing kitsch is a commentary on it. And that’s absolutely not so; that’s essentially like pointing out that a painting has paint on it and calling it art criticism. As a film, Napoleon Dynamite seems to believe that having the eponymous rude, nerdy teenager (Jon Heder) as a protagonist will automatically put an audience on his side. But there’s a difference between a likable protagonist and a grotesque one; the former causes viewers to empathize, while the latter fascinates due to their overtly repellent nature. Napoleon is neither, because we’re expected to find him sympathetic and yet he never behaves in any manner that would elicit that.

The rest of the cast is just as bad. While best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is a little nicer than the titular hero, he’s frankly a racist caricature. After all, all Latino teens have mustaches, gangbanger cousins and a thick accent (despite that his own sister does not), right? And brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) are just self-deluded oafs. Kip may have a few gentle words after a movie of being a snotty jerk, but only after he’s presumably enjoyed the love of LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), his internet girlfriend who shows up in the last portion of the movie to fix everything about his life like, I don’t know, some variety of female magical African-American stock character. As for Uncle Rico…well, let’s just say he begins the movie as sleazy moron stuck in his high school years and he ends the movie much the same, but with a broken arm. And when it comes to the mean, attractive cheerleaders who won’t give Napoleon or Pedro the time of day, they lose the high school election and are the only ones not to cheer on Napoleon during the climactic dance sequence. It’s almost as if someone who went to high school in the place in which it was filmed had some resentment towards their time there and took it out on everyone via the medium of cinema.

And ah, yes. That famed dance sequence in which Napoleon saves the day by spazzing out to Jamiroquai and wins the election for Pedro, because that’s a thing that happens. That would totally be a feel good moment in which the nerds win over the crowd, except that it completely comes out of nowhere and has no basis in the story that’s thus been told. There’s no indication that his fellow students would be impressed by his supremely awkward dancing; in fact, the whole point of the movie up till that point is the exact opposite. Napoleon has spent the entire movie being bullied and ignored. Why would these same people suddenly switch gears and find his behavior charming. Short answer: they wouldn’t. There’s no narrative reason for it, except to force a happy ending on the film, which is about the definition of lazy writing.

In fact, the ending of Napoleon Dynamite is just a series of awesome things happening out of nowhere to make everyone happy through no real effort of their own. Napoleon practices dancing for an afternoon and then is so fantastic at it that he can sway people that have held him in contempt for years. Footloose at least used a montage for that. Pedro wins the election and has a huge party. Rico’s estranged girlfriend mysteriously shows up. Kip is now a pimp, apparently. But up until that ending, the film is nothing but a parade of ugliness. For some reason, the Hesses made a film that ostensibly treats the outsider as the protagonist, but then makes him the worst tempered, most dimwitted character out of a cast of unlikable jerks. Teenage life is rough and teenagers are the worst, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t even be a modicum of empathy for them, instead of displaying their most awful characteristics and expecting us to laugh at them. Napoleon Dynamite isn’t a movie that treats its nerds with any respect. It’s a movie that lets people off the hook for continuing to mock them.

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13 Comments

  1. Reece

    September 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Nathan, you just tore that movie a much needed new butthole, and you are a much greater man for doing so. On behalf of myself and the American people who have half a decent mind, I would like to say thank you.

    Reply

  2. Dalabaster

    September 21, 2012 at 6:41 am

    Despite the fact that I basically agree with you point for point, I still like the movie. I’m not even sure why, but at least I can admit I can see things your way.

    Reply

  3. Dattebayo222

    October 24, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Finally, i felt alone on this, seriously, when the movie first came out, i thought wtf, why is everyone so attracted to this piece of vomited film making…as a kid who was bullied of hispanic background this movie made me face palm…i was called pedro for so long and i couldnt even get an awesome stache to boast about…

    Reply

  4. Michael Toombs

    August 7, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Your comments have been noted, none the less its popularity begs to differ on your opinion. This wasn’t a movie to solve any problems or sterotypes it was meant to please the masses.

    Reply

  5. Marvin Deltoid

    November 14, 2013 at 7:48 am

    There’s a brute honesty to this review, and I definitely feel like it was needed as a corrective to all the idiotic, hateful love of this film. Once I almost got my ass kicked by a chav in the UK because his drunk-ass girlfriend compared me to Napoleon (I am tall, socially braindead, and have red hair and glasses). I was so mad I leaned over and told her I would destroy her. ANYWAY the point is I definitely agree that most people took the film as an opportunity not to identify with but laugh at the protagonist. But I think that was the point, and in your zeal to defend yourself and the rest of us in geekdom from this trojan horse of an insult to our people, you end up losing your own sense of humor. The movie, right off the bat, is absurd and almost hallucinatory. It is drab and deadpan, yeah, but it never presents itself as realistic–for goddsakes, what kind of a name is Napoleon Dynamite anyway? It functions more like a dream than real life. What did you want exactly to happen in this movie? Napoleon finally gets diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and goes on a public awareness campaign? Part of the humor has to do with the unlikelihood of such incidents as Napoleon’s dancing getting Pedro the victory in the election. The whole thing was funny because it would never happen–it reflects Napoleon’s own narcissistic fantasy. It’s similar to his incomprehensibly successful pickup line for the sad girl at the end: “I caught you a delicious bass”. That’s nonsense almost on the level of David Lynch, where we ought to take a cue and say, maybe I’m SUPPOSED to balk at this. Am I getting too academic about this? Probably, but I’m on a roll. As for the racism in the film, you forgot the biggest insult, which is to Idaho-bred white people who don’t have enough culture to pronounce the word “quesadilla” correctly. There’s barely a single normal white person in the whole film. Everyone is neurotic and pathetic and weak, and the happy ending only makes the whole thing sillier. The movie’s not so much racist as generally misanthropic. You’re right that it’s a “parade of ugliness.” But I think it can be appreciated as such. It’s not a great movie, and it’s full of obnoxious twee embellishments, but I think it has something to say about the soul of white America, and what it has to say is it’s ugly, self-involved, and ultimately impotent. But it is too amused with itself to fully carry this point home, which does make it a bad movie. So I guess basically I do have the same opinion as you, but I want to put forward the idea that we ought to reflect a little more on what it tells us, in spite of itself, about the world and people it depicts, before we throw the thing into the trash. But we should, at the end of the day.

    Reply

  6. Vishnu

    December 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Napolean Dynamite is one of my favorite movies. I’ve liked it a lot since before I knew it was a cult movie.

    All the things the author has mentioned never once crossed my mind during any of the viewings. Maybe because I’m a stupid idiot who cannot tell awesome cinema from trash.

    Also, I’ve personally seen instances where a introverted kid in the class has become more likable just because of one act of awkward awesomeness. And that is why I loved the ending so much.

    Reply

  7. Chant Macleod

    April 2, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Amen, Nathan.

    Reply

  8. Luis Garcia

    April 14, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    What !? how dare you to write all those negative coments about “The best movie of all time” ……Do the chickens have large talons? hahaha

    Reply

  9. charlie rose

    August 19, 2015 at 9:51 am

    The movie is awesome. I agree with the latino stereotypes but that’s it. Obviously there are a few nerds that never got there redemption moment.

    Reply

  10. Bill

    November 16, 2015 at 11:11 am

    You know, I felt exactly the same way the first time I saw Napoleon Dynamite — “How the hell can people be so crazy about this movie? It doesn’t even have a PLOT!!! It’s a damn character sketch, for Pete’s sake!”

    Then I watched it a few more times. I think I am probably about the same age as the director/writer(s) … and probably on equally nerdy footing. In spite of agreeing with most of the things you’ve written, I have to say there’s something about this film that is charming and deeply satisfying … I can’t put my finger on it. From the “moon boots” to shredding a big block of cheese to make nachos, I found plenty to relate to — perhaps it’s nostalgia that leads me to defend this film.

    As for Napoleon, I guess maybe I’ve read a lot of complexity into what you’ve described as a rude, snotty character. I think that deep down Napoleon is a good kid, he just approaches the world with that brusque faux-toughness of someone who gets picked on a lot. Obviously, the joke is that he makes up these stories about his “skills with a bo staff” and needing room for his “nunchucks” … but less obvious is the fact that he really yearns to fit in and be the kind of guy that Summer Wheatley et al would go to the dance with. In a way, he achieves this. In your dismissal of the dance scene … I don’t know if you’ve ever performed at or witnessed a high school talent show, but they can be star-making moments for nerds. I’m nearly 40 years old, and I sang one song at the talent show my senior year and people still mention it when they bump into me. Napoleon wasn’t the most likeable kid, but he was a lot more relatable than “hottest-girl-in-the-school” Summer and her popular “in crowd” cronies … In a way, Napoleon’s dance routine was about the triumph of the average guy over the “beautiful people”. Napoleon yearns for popularity, manliness and the favor of girls like Summer, but during the course of the movie he finds a girl in Deb perhaps even better suited for him because she understands his awkwardness — and she literally shows up on his front porch.

    I guess what you dismiss as rudeness I see as awkwardness and false bravado … a mask to conceal the fact that Napoleon was a frightened, insecure teenager with bad hair, a hideous wardrobe and an embarrassingly dysfunctional family — and I can completely relate to all of those things.

    I don’t think this film encourages people to make fun of nerds … I think it gives them enough detail to see themselves in the characters, or perhaps see people they know — their uber-manly uncle … their grandmother who gets more action than they do.

    Reply

    • Christian

      December 14, 2015 at 7:44 pm

      exactly, and if you can’t see this… Well you just weren’t paying attention. This movie is smart because it’s so subtle. It’s not pretending to be realistic. However, an awesome dance like that could change the schools’ opinion of you just like that. This film is smart and affectionate to all its characters (ok maybe not uncle Rico so much), you just missed it really

      Reply

  11. Anonymous

    February 2, 2019 at 8:18 am

    Literally everything the author said in his argument can be turned right back around as reasons to why the movie is so great. Find me a funnier movie, I dare you. The whole point of the movie is that Napoleon is hated by everyone, that’s the fucking point. How the fuck is Pedro racist? I don’t know where you got that from. The dance scene is fucking legendary. Honestly, you’re just an idiot if you don’t love this film. You either love it, or you’re dumb. There is no other option. The thing is fucking comedy gold. Of course Kip and Uncle Rico are assholes, that’s the point.

    Reply

    • Kajn

      June 30, 2021 at 6:04 pm

      Dude this article is 9 years old but i just wanted to say you have to respect other people’s opinion if you want them to respect yours but I agree with all of your points

      Reply

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