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Friday, June 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Tom Keogh
This summer's American lexicon will likely feel the impact of "Napoleon Dynamite," a small, independent comedy nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
In the same way "Saturday Night Live" sketches introduced key phrases ("Isn't that special?") into everyday discourse, "Napoleon" may bring a geek slant to real-world conversation. If the film gains its deserved audience, expect to hear a volatile brand of dweeb-speak for awhile, puerile lamentations detonated with an eruptive whine: "Dang it." "Gimme the flippin' thing." "Maybe I will, gosh!"
Such square bellicosity is the province of Preston, Idaho, high-school student Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a cross between the long-suffering Job and a clueless Butt-head (sans Beavis, and lacking Butt-head's defensive sense of irony). Napoleon is an ungainly, toothy, carrot-topped loser squinting through the miasma of his haphazard existence, angry but incapable of meaningful rebellion.
More fundamentally, Napoleon is mired, like a small child, in an unfocused, incomplete awareness of the parameters of his life. He lurches through his days barely tolerated, bellowing non-sequitur objections in writer-director Jared Hess' dry, cleverly stultified, sort-of-late-1970s rural culture, where purpose is negligible.
When a teacher asks Napoleon to report on a current event, the vaguely comprehending teen describes Japanese scientists firing explosives in Loch Ness. When urged to ask a girl to a school prom, Napoleon draws a hideous portrait of his would-be date and delivers it, promising there's "more where that came from."
Things change when creepy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a domineering hustler, moves in with Napoleon and overtakes the minuscule wills of our hapless hero and his older, feckless brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell). This disconcerting change finally gives Napoleon something solid to buck against. And it comes just as he (finally) makes a couple of friends, the moony Pedro (Efrem Ramirez) and the mousy but proud Deb (Tina Majorino), each of whom give Napoleon a reason to display loyalty and in a small, surprisingly profound and memorably funny act self-sacrifice.
Heder is magnificent, but the film's flat, eccentric tone is Hess' overarching achievement, an inclusive joke for appreciative viewers and an accessible variation on the willfully banal voyeurism of Paul Morrissey ("Trash").
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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