Life on the margin of obsession

“Napoleon Dynamite” invites us to come and go mad

Gabriel Shapiro

High school is a trying time for many young people, especially for those of us who aren’t exactly blessed with the “social graces.” Many of us might have been geeks, but few could have been as full-on dorky as the title character in “Napoleon Dynamite.”

“Napoleon Dynamite” successfully blends the best comedic elements of movies like “Sixteen Candles” and “Revenge of the Nerds” with the sustained development of interesting, utterly eccentric characters, like those found in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Writer/director Jared Hess’s smart, unusual wit and a strong sense of the absurd, avoid many of the pitfalls of the often disappointing world of films about teenage life.

The film opens with a unique and hilarious credit sequence in which every name is spelled in food. This sets the tone for the continuous bizarre-a-thon. The film is set in rural Idaho, which allows Napoleon and his family to be extremely weird, exhibiting a level of freakishness that needs space to develop. People in cities can’t get this weird, as there are people around to tell them they’re out of step.

Like “Tenenbaums,” “Napoleon” relies less on plot than just turning the lunatic characters loose and watching a series of “day-in-the-life” episodes.

The main plotline in “Napoleon” is slightly more linear than anything in “Tenenbaums,” and Hess manages

the multiple stories deftly, knowing when the subplots are starting to encroach, and putting them on the backburner when necessary.

The plot is nothing too new, nerds versus popular kids, but it avoids the cheesy “nerds united” theme, instead letting the characters keep their quirks and their flaws. The ending is therefore less saccharine, and things feel less neatly tied up. Instead the movie ends with a sense that picking up at any point in the lives of these out-there American oddballs would be an event that was both unpredictable and somewhat insane.

“Napoleon Dynamite” is a very original twist on a well-worn story, and the squeals of delighted recognition we let loose at the sight of moon boots and Trapper Keepers are as fun as the belly laughs over lunatic dancing and Napoleon’s tantrums. The cast does an excellent job as the troupe of weirdos that make up Napoleon’s tiny universe, and make our short excursion to that coo-coo place a very enjoyable outing.

The zaniness of the characters is at once compelling and revolting. Their idiosyncrasies are humorous and engaging, but they aren’t one-dimensional stereotypes, and there is plenty about each character that makes watching them suffer fun.

The drive to continue watching them is fed as much by the desire to see the underdogs triumph as by the same urge that makes us stare at car wrecks.