The fact that an amusing title sequence and a poignant last 10 minutes are the best parts of Jared Hess' Napoleon Dynamite shouldn't necessarily deter you from seeing it. I'm not exactly sure what should, but I'm pretty sure it's something.
In the parlance of his movie's target audience, Hess' titular character is a geek or a nerd, and hence the perfect butt of harmless jokes when you see him portrayed on screen. To grownups, though, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a high school loner who lives in a drab, lifeless, rural Idaho culture: He's parentless, friendless and lacking in the most rudimentary social skills. He's also a mediocre artist -- in the freakish style of Gahan Wilson, only by accident -- who draws misunderstood mythical creatures like unicorns and Pegasus. His mouth perpetually hangs open, and as an ice-breaker to classmate Deb, a shy door-to-door Glamour Shots salesgirl, he says: "Are you drinking 1 percent milk because you think you're fat? Well, you're not."
In the world of Napoleon Dynamite, which takes place among amber waves and FFA milk-tasting contests (which Napoleon wins), Hess' message seems to be that showing up and making the effort is 90 percent of success. This may be because he's still 24 years old, and a graduate of Brigham Young University. On the other hand, he's certainly the flip side of BYU's most famous alumnus filmmaker, the corrosive brutalist Neil LaBute.
Hess, who co-wrote the movie with his wife, Jerusha Hess, patches together or happens upon things in Napoleon Dynamite that you'll recognize from other works, like the masterful Election (a contest for class president), the quirky Rushmore (its characters were droll eccentrics; Hess' are clueless misfits), and even Beavis and Butt-Head (Hess often directs his actors to gawk and pause too long between sentences).
Napoleon has a whiny, milquetoast 32-year-old brother whose voluptuous chat-room girlfriend, LaFawnduh, arrives on a bus from Detroit and soon alters his personality with bling-bling and a do-rag. His creepy uncle (Jon Gries) sells Tupperware and relives high school football memories. And his new best friend is a drab Mexican lad, Pedro (Efrem Ramirez), who teaches Napoleon, almost by accident, about believing in yourself. So ultimately it's the non-native people of color who effect change in this bleak Wonder Bread world.
At the heart of Napoleon Dynamite is what its characters call "dreams" but what we, on the outside, can only call pure movie fantasy. Maybe Hess planned it that way, or maybe he isn't wise enough yet to weave his beliefs into something less spotty and transparent. A hip young local preview audience, all of them packing heat (i.e., cell phones), chuckled often at the movie, proving once again the wisdom of the poet Bion: "The boys throw stones at the frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest." Because everything in Napoleon Dynamite works out well, I suppose we can forgive Hess for making us laugh at people who, in real life, are suffering. Or maybe we can't. I'm still not sure. AAb