On this very special Friday the 13th, 10YA is happy to introduce two new contributors to the project. Up first is Los Angeles-based comedy writer Brian Rubinow with a ten-years-later look at the flippin’ sweetness that is Napoleon Dynamite. You can find him at twitter.com/brubinow.
Ten Years Ago: Napoleon Dynamite
By Brian Rubinow
Napoleon Dynamite was 2004’s little indie movie that could. A plotless, no-budget oddball comedy from a first-time director about a lonely high school kid doesn’t exactly seem like a likely candidate to spark a bidding war between Fox and Warner Bros., but lo and behold the film’s titular character became just as ubiquitous—and his catchphrases just as tired and worn out—as the Borats and Austin Powerses of his time.
However, what separates Napoleon from his contemporaries is that there’s an actual character beneath the familiar catchphrases and silly costume. Watching Napoleon Dynamite as an adult, I was struck by how true to life its depiction of high school feels. Napoleon goes through all the usual trials and tribulations of those inescapably awkward four years: bullies, school dances, his first crush. It was like watching Welcome to the Dollhouse if Todd Solondz were on antidepressants.
Even for a comedy, Napoleon Dynamite is decidedly low-stakes. The film’s only source of tension, Pedro’s campaign for class president, is not even introduced until halfway through the film. Rather, we get a bunch of scenes that could almost stand on their own, removed from the film entirely. Like, do we really need a scene of Napoleon awkwardly performing a choreographed sign-language dance with the Happy Hands Club in front of his whole class?
Well, yes, quite frankly, because those small moments are kind of what the whole film is about. Sure, on its own it doesn’t add much, but combined with other “pointless” moments like Napoleon digging a tater tot out of his pocket in the middle of class or his ill-fated attempt at using a time machine bought from the Internet, you get a rich tapestry of what life is like in rural Idaho, at least through director Jared Hess’s cracked point-of-view. Like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, you just have to let the film happen, rather than question the purpose of any particular scene.
Absolutely everything about Napoleon Dynamite is under-played, set to a low heat that rarely rises above a simmer. In any other film, Napoleon getting ditched by his date to the dance would be a source of melodrama (probably accompanied by some gag about spiking the punch), but Napoleon just shrugs and asks Pedro and Deb if they’re having a killer time. “Yes,” Deb deadpans. Likewise, there’s a tangible nerds-vs-jocks dynamic that runs through much of the film, but it’s much more Freaks and Geeks than Revenge of the Nerds. The biggest revenge Napoleon takes on his jock overlords is to ask for one of Summer’s campaign buttons, only to heave it down the school hallway. Take that, jocks.
I was fresh out of high school when Napoleon Dynamite was released in theaters, so only now can I look back and appreciate just how terrible high school kids are at everyday social cues. Everyone, it seems, is only allowed to ask for a date to the dance indirectly, preferably via scribbled note delivered through a confidant. There were several times while watching where I wanted to scream, “Just go talk to her! Like a human being! What’s wrong with you?!” Even when Napoleon approaches Deb in the cafeteria, he opens with what feels like a come-on: “I see you’re drinking 1 percent. Is that ‘cause you think you’re fat? Because you’re not. You could be drinking whole if you wanted to.”
Of course, that’s just how high school kids are, at least when it comes to the opposite sex. Baking a cake for your crush is just as logical as shaving off all your hair when you feel too hot. Everyone knows that.
Any film as offbeat as this one that manages to achieve its level of mainstream success is bound to be divisive, and that’s perhaps what I remember most about it from the time it came out. Napoleon Dynamite viewers were neatly divided into two camps: those (like myself) who loved it, and those who just didn’t get it. “Nothing happens!” was the most common complaint. But you can’t really blame the film for creating false expectations. Napoleon lays out exactly what he’s going to do in the first lines of dialogue in the film: “Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!”
The best thing I can say about Napoleon Dynamite is that it holds up perfectly, even these 10 years later. It doesn’t feel dated at all. Or, scratch that, I should say it still feels dated, because everything about the film is designed from the ground up to feel like a relic from the past. Napoleon’s thrift-store outfits predate Macklemore by about a decade, and Uncle Rico supposedly takes grooming tips from Dirk Diggler. Houses are decked out in that awful fake-looking wood paneling, and the TV in Napoleon’s living room looks so old, I’m surprised it’s in color. The only clue that the film takes place in modern times is the Jamiroquai song “Canned Heat” (released in 1999) that plays during Napoleon’s big dance sequence.
Of course, that dance sequence is the big climactic moment, the one scene that makes you stand up and cheer, and the one thing you’re probably going to remember about the film even if you hated it. It seemingly comes out of nowhere, but there are just enough clues planted through the scenes leading up to it (Napoleon telling Pedro that the most important thing for a president is to have “skills,” Napoleon buying D-Qwon’s Dance Grooves on VHS) that it feels justified. My favorite is LaFawnduh giving an audio cassette to Napoleon, telling him her cousin made it. At the time, I took this as a sly hint that her cousin was in Jamiroquai, though now I realize it probably just means her cousin made the mixtape. But this film is so unpredictable, I feel like either explanation is equally likely.
OK, confession time. I still listen to the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack. I don’t think it’s left my MP3 player since the film came out, and it probably never will. John Swihart’s compositions sound like they were made on a cheap Casio keyboard, and they are perfect. At times they sound like a funky groove (“Suitwalk”), an R&B slow jam (“Kip Waits”), or some bizarre combination of Milt Buckner and Devo (“Bus Rider”). Seeing the film again was the first time in years that I heard these songs in their original context. It was like finally getting a translation of a foreign phrase you’ve heard a million times, or finding the missing corner of a treasure map. There’s this big “A-ha!” moment, paired with the feeling that everything just feels right.
The licensed songs fit the film perfectly as well. “Music for a Found Harmonium” is especially fitting, as the song crescendos over the film’s denouement. Its upbeat harmonium-driven melody deftly echoes the completion of the main characters’ emotional arcs, as Grandma reunites with her beloved llama, Pedro celebrates his successful campaign, and Napoleon finally finds someone to play tetherball with.
The one glaring flaw, if it must be mentioned, is the shake up in Napoleon and Deb’s friendship that comes after Rico gives Deb a flyer for “Bust Must+,” saying it’s from Napoleon. Deb calls Napoleon a shallow friend, and it’s not until the end of the film that they reconcile, after Deb gets a look at Napoleon’s sweet dance moves. It’s the one part of the film that feels false and tacked-on, probably because it’s also the sort of subplot that inevitably crops up in every high school movie ever made.
Ultimately, though, Napoleon Dynamite is an immensely satisfying film. Napoleon is like a latter-day Max Fischer or Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski—an aloof hero who doesn’t follow the rules (either because he doesn’t care, or is completely unaware of what they are) and enriches the lives of everyone around him. Every little detail feels like part of a much larger whole, or a window into an alternate universe where unicorn shirts never went out of style. Rewatching Napoleon Dynamite felt like checking in with an old friend, the sort of friend who hasn’t changed at all in the 10 years since you’ve seen him, but it wouldn’t feel right any other way.
– Napoleon Dynamite is so full of hilarious, quotable moments that it’s impossible to pick a favorite one. Here now, for your nostalgic enjoyment, are my top 5:
- The Dynamites own a llama named Tina. Because of course they do. “Tina, you fat lard! Come get some ham!” Napoleon implores.
- “Do the chickens have large talons?”
- Napoleon, moments before turning on the time machine and getting shocked in the nuts: “Yeah, hold on. I forgot to put in the crystals.”
- Lyle the farmer shooting a cow in the face before a busload of horrified schoolchildren.
- Kip’s completely out-of-nowhere burn on Deb: “Your mom goes to college!”
– I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening credits sequence, with the cast and filmmakers’ names spelt out on different foods, most of which appear later in the film. Food plays such a major role, it’s hard to imagine the film starting any other way. Like the rest of Napoleon Dynamite, the sequence is full of small moments of brilliance that you only notice on a second or third viewing, like Jon Heder’s name being on a card for UFO abduction insurance (Don’t leave Earth without it!) or the ChapStick being uncapped instead of simply being lowered out of frame. Also, according to IMDb’s trivia page, some of this sequence had to be re-shot with professional hand models when Fox didn’t like the look of some of the actors placing food on camera. The more you know.
– Just in time for the tenth anniversary, the cast of Napoleon Dynamite reunited to unveil a statue of its titular character, and it’s way creepier than you could possibly imagine. Take a look: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/flippin-weird-napoleon-dynamite-cast-unveils-creepy-bronze-statue-20140611
– Everyone who saw Napoleon Dynamite back in the day exited the theater spouting catchphrases to all their friends. That’s a given. But it wasn’t until I watched it again that I realized I still have a few mannerisms that come straight from this film. Like, I still punch my palm when it’s time to get something done, just like Rex does just before he beats the crap out of Uncle Rico for getting too close to Starla.
– My favorite gag: Suckered into Uncle Rico’s door-to-door Tupperware sales scheme, Kip runs over a bowl to show its durability. The bowl shatters, and without missing a beat, Kip lets out a “Dang it!” and immediately drives off.
– The post-credits scene of Kip and LaFawnduh’s wedding (added to the film after its distribution deal) is a nice coda, but it ultimately feels unnecessary. Still, Napoleon does look pretty flippin’ sweet riding that horse.