Bring It On
I wasn’t going to write about Napoleon Dynamite, but now I have to.
There isn’t one single reason. Part of it is this CNN story, which explains how (not why, mind you, but how) Napoleon Dynamite action figures will be coming to a Wal-Mart near you. Or this other CNN story, which cited Napoleon Dynamite in an exploration of what it meant to have “dork pride“. And part of it was a concert I went to recently, where a well-known country music artist with Texas roots, who is, say, in the 98th percentile of coolness, said that he’d seen Napoleon Dynamite fifteen times on the tour bus.
I can’t imagine why. Napoleon Dynamite is, not to put too fine a point on it, horrible. It is dull, and vacant, and uncurious, and seemingly uninterested in anything except seeing just how much patience the audience has for witless, pointless behavior. Its central character has such a thoroughgoing contempt for humanity that he has all but separated himself from it, and speaking on behalf of humanity, I say that it’s a good thing, too. And in case you don’t get what a dork the main character is — in case you don’t understand just how hopelessly geeky and strange and clueless he is — the filmmakers constantly nudge you with sight gag after sight gag. Napoleon Dynamite is set in a small Idaho town where the detrius of everything that was remotely on the fringes of trendy ended up — dune buggies, llamas, Tupperware, macrame, pay-by-the-minute dial-up Internet service, VHS breakdance tapes — and it all shows up in the movie, all there to tell us, once again, just how dippy and stupid and out-of-it the Napoleon Dynamite character is.
Napoleon Dynamite is meant to be a comedy, but it has one fatal flaw — it is not funny. There are moments that were meant to be funny — say, Napoleon Dynamite trying to jump a pile of junk on the sidewalk with a bicycle — that simply aren’t. To the extent that someone might find them to be funny — and I do not know, honestly, how one could — they are funny only to the extent that they are cruel. The only way you could laugh at Napoleon Dynamite would be the way that the Biff Tannens of the world laugh at the George McFlys, the way that bullies have forever laughed at the weak and inept. (Tellingly, the only character in Napoleon Dynamite that is effectively played for laughs is a bully — Rex, the local tae kwon do guy, played by the immortal Diedrich Bader.)
I don’t see how anyone can argue with this. I will grant you that the movie was made for next to nothing. The cast is almost completely no-name (the only thing close to a famous name is Haylie Duff, sister of Hillary). Jon Heder has the Napoleon Dynamite role and revels in it, which is not the same thing at all as being good. To the extent that the script is about a student council election, it is lame, unoriginal, and uninspired, and to the extent that it is not, it is lifeless, tedious, and awful. Napoleon Dynamite stinks. It stinks to high heaven. It is pointless, tasteless, and dim. And I really don’t see how anyone can argue with this. The only way a movie like Napoleon Dynamite could have fans — much less the apparently devoted fans that it has — is that people like it and esteem it because of its faults, not in spite of them. There really isn’t any other explanation, because the movie really is that bad.
And yet — and yet — as I write this, Napoleon Dynamite has a 70% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, a site to which I used to contribute reviews. 70 percent! Inconcievable! And lest you think that this is all the work of proto-geek online reviewers, I submit to you the following:
I began to enjoy the one-thing-after-anotherness and the minimalist wit of the actors embodying many different species of nerd. — David Edelstein, Slate
It ends up saying, quietly and without strutting, this great American thing: We are each other and we are more alike than different, and we can profit so much from that connection. — Stephen Hunter, Washington Post
Similarities to the work of Wes Anderson may be coincidental, but they are present. — James Berardinelli, REELVIEWS
Mr. Hess turns his meandering assembly of quiet observations and slapstick inventions — which, at their best, suggest a combination of Tod Solondz and Bill Forsyth — into an unconvincingly uplifting fairy tale. — A.O. Scott, The New York Times
The mind reels. And if you look at the full Rotten Tomatoes list, you’ll see that, at last count, a hundred online critics rated this as “fresh” in some way. A hundred!
Therefore, I am going to do something I rarely, if ever, do, because it’s so ill-advised. If you like this movie, I am going to invite you to tell me why. I do so knowing that putting a negative review of a movie that a minority of people like passionately for some weird, twisted reason will, inevitably, lead to hits from people who loved the movie and cannot believe that everyone else doesn’t share their views. If you are such a person, and you have read this far, and you really liked Napoleon Dynamite, and can’t understand why anyone else wouldn’t like the movie, please leave a comment.Â (If you hated the movie the way I did, please don’t bother.)
I am doing this in the firm conviction that I am right and that Napoleon Dynamite is the worst movie of 2004, and that anyone who disagrees should not be allowed into a movie, ever again, or at any rate should not sit behind me.
And to quote the great words of our President, “Bring it on.”