Monday, August 02, 2004

Comedy TNT

A review of Napoleon Dynamite

I thoroughly enjoyed this offbeat, retro comedy of manners. There's a consistent polish to the dialogue, the performance, and the situations of the scenes that is often clever and fresh. There have been a slew of comedies in the last year from what I'm beginning to think of as a new Hollywood Comedy Mafia: Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller, and, to a lesser extent, Luke and Owen Wilson and Jack Black (most of whom show up in the goofy Anchorman). Then there's the slightly more indie Comedy Mafia who have achieved surprising popularity by making the good but overrated mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Jennifer Coolidge, etc. (This reminds me of the puzzlingly wild success of author-humorist David Sedaris, another mediocrity.) All of these talents have done some excellent work in the past (Stiller's The Cable Guy & Meet the Parents, the Wilsons' work with Wes Anderson, several of Jack Black's supporting roles and School of Rock), but much of their work is disappointingly mediocre and seems to suffer because they churn out so much of it. Ben Stiller, for example, had an embarassing run of bad films this year (though I loved Starsky and Hutch). As a result, I'm getting sick of some of Hollywood's funniest people. Napoleon Dynamite was refreshing because it seems to offer a completely fresh troupe of comedians.

Like the uneven but enjoyable Anchorman, Napoleon Dynamite is a series of sketches edited together in a way that plays loosely with narrative. The film often drops you in the middle of a scene without explaining how the characters got there or what they're doing. In other words, unlike the Saturday Night Live crowd's style of overexplanation, the film credits you with the intelligence to keep up. Writer/director Jared Hess doesn't seem to feel the need to wink at you to make sure you know it's a joke. He actually seems confident you'll figure it out on your own. His script shows the kind of attention to detail that rewards quick-witted audiences and repeated viewings. (For example, I like the way Napoleon's annoying uncle pronounces his name differently from everyone else--the French way.) Unfortunately, a lot of the laughs and script ideas are clearly secondhand. The film reminded me of several other superior films: Gummo (strangeness of rural life, odd-looking characters); Welcome to the Dollhouse (identifying with a school's nerd); Rushmore (unlikely alliances); Donnie Darko (80s nostalgia and tacky dance routines); and Election (a campaign for class office). But there are also several fresh and innovative touches: the Idaho setting, a few sequences involving animals like llamas and cows, and especially a hilarious exaggeration of garden variety juvenile behavior, that brand of passive aggressive resistance (not quite rebellion) that involves whines, groans, rolled eyes, begrudging acquiescences, dramatic sighs and huffs, and lazy, half-hearted tantrums that only serve to make someone seem pathetic or ridiculous. The film has a winning, talented cast, especially Jon Heder in the lead and Tina Majorino as Deb. To my surprise, instead of incorporating an acid tone (as in Election), the film reserves a kind of loving tone for its misfits and reveals no shame or misgivings in rewarding them with some measure of success once they've worked a bit for it. The film displays a seemingly unconscious idealism and a charming optimism that you'd never find in Todd Solondz's work.

In eschewing strong narrative, the film seems to be incapable of the deep satisfaction of an Election or Rushmore, and I'd like to see this team aim a little higher next time, but for now it's a great pleasure to see Hollywood's dumb-comedy heroes get a little much-needed competition in the theaters. (3 stars out of 4)



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