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Nerdy and peculiar, 'Napoleon' turns on charm

"Napoleon Dynamite" was the big buzz hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but, honestly, any movie that shows at midnight at 7,000 feet above sea level has already had much of its work done for it. Now that this shoestring oddity has descended to the lower altitudes, it can be seen for what it is: an inspired dead-end stunt that keeps delivering snarky laughs far longer than it has any right to. The film's attitude remains high, and it probably wouldn't hurt if the audience was too.

Directed by Brigham Young University film graduate Jared Hess and written with his wife, Jerusha, "Napoleon" suggests Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse" stuffed into the confines of an MTV interstitial skit. In segments so deadpan as to seem disconnected, the film sketches out the dire adolescent life of the title character (Jon Heder), a gangly Idaho Brillo-head whose nerdiness has achieved cosmic proportions.

Napoleon lives in ranch-house misery with his dirt-biking grandma (Sandy Martin), her pet llama Tina, and his 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a scrawny ankle-sock-wearing shut-in who spends all day chatting up "babes" on the Internet. (The brothers' sissy-fights are a highlight of the film's early scenes). He's a figure of derision to his schoolmates -- especially queen of mean Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff, already well on the road to becoming sister Hilary's evil B-movie twin) -- but Napoleon is too ornery to be a sad sack. His eyes screwed shut behind aviator glasses, arms and legs jutting out like a grasshopper's, the character just seems deeply and comically exasperated. How was school? someone asks. "Worst day of my life," Napoleon barks in response. "What did you think?"

He's a cartoon, in other words, but so peculiar and unique as to be nearly heroic. Plus, he has a way with women. "I see you're drinking 1 percent," Napoleon tells a girl. "Is that because you think you're fat? You could probably drink whole milk."

"Napoleon Dynamite" keeps bringing on the freaks, to the point where the estate of Diane Arbus should arguably have been cut a check. In addition to Napoleon and Kip, there's their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a toupee'd ladies man whose latest shady business venture is selling herbal breast enhancers door-to-door; new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez), another cafeteria outcast who mounts a surprising bid for student council; Ilene (Ellen Dubin), a Tupperware-obsessed housewife; and Deb (Tina Majorino), Napoleon's possible love interest and a portrait photographer whose instructions to her subjects run along the lines of "Imagine you're in the ocean surrounded by tiny seahorses."

There's a lot more of this -- every scene is a brightly lit 1950s postcard of precision kitsch -- but Hess keeps the laughs coming with timing worthy of Jim Jarmusch and a narrow but controlled performance by Heder as the film's King Geek.

Be warned, though: Some people find this movie cruel in the extreme -- an exercise in empty style that pins its misfits to the wall like captured butterflies. By contrast, its fans (and I'm one, with reservations) know that what makes Napoleon a hopeless spazzola is also what makes him better than all the Summer Wheatleys. He just hasn't realized it yet.

Similarities to "Welcome to the Dollhouse" are obvious, not to mention the entire oeuvre of Wes Anderson. "Napoleon Dynamite" is the more optimistic film, though, and also the lesser one. What remains to be seen is whether Jared Hess has another movie in him -- a real movie, about real people.


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