Napoleon Dynamite: The Most Divisive Film Ever Made?

In 2006, Netflix offered $1 million to the first person who could solve what they had called “The Napoleon Dynamite...

Dan Wakefield

Contributor

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In 2006, Netflix offered $1 million to the first person who could solve what they had called “The Napoleon Dynamite Problem.” The site’s recommendation engine, Cinematch, relied on an algorithm that considered the user’s likes and dislikes in order to tailor their next choice accordingly.

For example, if you gave Taken a high rating, it might suggest that your next choice be The Patriot or Man On Fire. And although the prize money was for the inventor of an algorithm that would benefit the whole site, no film typified the “Like this? Try this…” conundrum quite like Napoleon Dynamite.

Put simply, no one at Netflix knew what to compare it to. With viewers opting for either the one – or five-star – rating, and no middle-ground fence-sitting, this made for rather divergent results. But why all the fuss? Surely a humble high-school comedy couldn’t be the cause of such a commercial headache?

Directed by Jared Hess (and sharing a writing credit with his wife Jerusha), Napoleon Dynamite began life as a short film called Peluca before becoming the surprise hit of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. With a current rating of 6.8 on IMDb, a Metascore rating of 64 and a ‘Certified 71% Fresh’ review on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has stealthily gathered a sizeable fan base and enjoyed its inevitable cult status.Yet the verdict was somewhat less unanimous once it reached a wider audience. It would seem that not everybody was blown away by Dynamite

Its protagonist is a gawky, listless and socially awkward teenager (Jon Heder) who happens to share his name with an Elvis Costello pseudonym (although the couple claim they were only told of this connection once the film had all but wrapped). School – and indeed, life- seems to pass Napoleon by; when he’s not drawing fantastic hybrid creatures in his notepad, he’s bemoaning the lack of skills that have hitherto kept him undisturbed by female attention.

At first glance, even the viewer is unsure just why they should stick with someone so peculiar, particular and unpopular; a character who voices his nasal contempt at everything he sees, a boy who looks like a bad drawing of a nerd. His friend, a transfer student from Mexico called Pedro (Efren Ramirez), is even more bewildered, barely raising his voice above a murmur and often staring into his strange Idaho surroundings with blank-eyed detachment.

In fact, every character we meet seems to be in a state of arrested development; like a bizarre cross between The Breakfast Club and a ‘Peanuts’ strip, from Napoleon’s older brother, Kip (Aaron Buell), who uses the burgeoning online dating scene to ”chat with babes all day”, to his Uncle Rico (a superbly sleazy Jon Gries), who, after their grandmother breaks her coccyx while quad-biking across the nearby sand dunes, persuades the boys to join him as he leapfrogs from one get-rich-quick scheme to another.

But even in a town full of oddballs, Napoleon stands tall. He has all the quirkiness of a Wes Anderson wunderkind, yet none of the accompanying academic ability. When asked about one particular drawing, he replies that it’s ”a liger, pretty much my favourite animal..bred for its skills in magic.” It’s impossible to tell if this line, as representative of the film as any, was intended to be played for laughs.

By now we’ve discovered that this isn’t a film about a gifted boy who realises his dreams and leaves his farm for the big city, but more a deadpan diorama wherein the madcap and maladjusted ricochet off each other like loosely-packed particles. Indeed, there is no plot to speak of; Napoleon et al simply drift from one set-piece to another, gently subverting the tropes of your typical teen drama as they go.

And so we have a brief foray into politics, with Napoleon helping Pedro to run against golden girl Summer Wheatley for class president, and, of course, the pinnacle of all US students’ lives, the prom. The former may lack the satirical bite of, say, Alexander Payne’s Election, but there’s still a rather dark surprise in store; reminding us of perhaps the greatest of all high-school sympathisers, John Hughes- who would almost unwaveringly paint the film’s adults, and especially those established as figures of authority, in a less than flattering light.

The prom, on the other hand, is a key scene of character development. Napoleon is bumbling but good-natured and has found a date in the sweetly sad Deb (Tina Majorino), an unassuming entrepreneur, of sorts, selling home-made tat to put herself through college. You’ve not been this grateful to see a character finally crack a smile since Claudia in Magnolia.

For a comedy, there’s no escaping the sigh of melancholy hovering in the air. While Deb seems to be plagued by an unspecified ennui, it is, perversely, the character with the biggest grin who yearns the most. For all his enthusiasm, Uncle Rico is a man betrayed by his own expressions. A fan of American football, he laments the injury that forced him out of a professional career and so now he records himself throwing a pigskin to no one in particular and dodging imaginary rivals, all in the vain hope of returning to his glory days.

When he asks his nephews about the possibility of time travel, what seems like a throwaway joke is actually a last-ditch cry of desperation. This marks a turning point; as the film progresses, you can practically see him stretching the limits of the film’s PG certificate. There’s something not quite right about him. We may be too quick to assume there’s a lot left unspoken in his door-to-door business, but the scene in which he tries to sell breast-enlargement products to teenage girls threatens to turn to much darker territory with a simple, and seemingly innocuous, raise of his eyebrows.

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