Sunday, June 27, 2004

"I caught you a delicious bass."

Napoleon Dynamite is funny for a lot of reasons. The biggest is Jon Heder as Napoleon, for his delivery of lines like "Would you bring me chapstick? My lips hurt real bad!" and "It took me like three hours to finish the shading on your upper lip." But I enjoyed his performance even more for the subtle touches--the heavy breathing that introduces the character as he waits for the bus, and the way he leaps down the steps of his house when he goes to feed his grandma's pet llama ("Tina, come get some ham!").

The film revels in quiet awkwardness, like a Wes Anderson-inspired cousin of Todd Solondz. But when I like something so much that I wish it was better--like Tim Burton's BIG FISH or the House's recent production of ROCKET MAN--I tend to be hyper cognizant of where it stumbles, or where it tries too hard. There's a lot of original cleverness in NAPOLEON, but there were a few jokes that were so familiar they made me a little uncomfortable.

When Napoleon and his brother Kip take a free class in "Rex Kwan Doe," the instructor, with his bandana, sunglasses, and American flag-colored pants, is a direct descendent of the UPRIGHT CITIZEN BRIGADE'S Steve Youngblood; when Napoleon shares a slow dance with the girl he has a crush on the camera slowly pans up and away, in a homage/parody to countless sitcoms--just like FREAKS AND GEEKS did five years ago; and when Napoleon and his friend Pedro hang up posters for Pedro's campaign for class president the theme from THE A-TEAM plays over a montage of the pair unrolling masking tape, hanging posters on lockers, and clasping hands. The same song was used to similar effect when Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, David Wain, and Paul Rudd foraged for hot dogs in STELLA'S short video "The Woods." The filmmakers have great tastes in comedy, but if anyone else shares them these scenes will ring familiar.

All that said, ND's failings are far outweighed by the things it does right--I'd take friends to see it again. But mostly I wish the filmmakers had shown more of the creativity they expressed in creating Uncle Rico, the former high school football player who bets he could still throw a football "over those mountains." And I hope Jon Heder can avoid becoming another Jason Schwartzman, doomed because in his debut he played an unforgettable character.

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