Hail the conquering geek

Staff WriterJuly 23, 2004 

I'm telling Mom! Tempers appear to flare between Napoleon (Jon Heder, left) and his brother (Aaron Ruell).

'Napoleon Dynamite" is a full-on geek show, a dense fog of caged awkwardness and nerdy absurdity. Every waking moment of this movie, every character who walks in and out of this dorked-out universe, is drenched in geekiness.

Just look at the title character -- he is named after a song by geek-rock lord Elvis Costello. With his lanky frame, bugged-out, red mini-'fro and his tendency to breathe through his mouth, he looks and sounds like Beck's little brother. Jon Heder plays Dynamite, putting so much conviction in his spazzy portrayal that you don't know whether to feel awe or pity. Set in present-day Preston, Idaho, a suburb that apparently hasn't moved on culturally since 1985, the movie has Dynamite -- a name everyone in this flick buys -- going through the motions at the local high school, a place that's festering with more geeks than even he realizes. Even the school's resident BMOC is a tool you'd avoid at all costs if he were at your school.

The truth of the matter is, everyone in this movie is a loser. Dynamite's big brother (Aaron Ruell) is a meek fella who spends his time chatting online, claiming he has an Internet sweetheart named LaFawnduh. Their uncle, Rico (Jon Gries), who stays with them after their grandmother cracks her coccyx in an ATV accident, is a macho heel who sells Tupperware so he can -- I kid you not! -- buy a time machine off eBay and go back to 1982, when he was a high-school football star.

Back at school, Dynamite immediately clings himself to new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez), whose sleepy-eyed demeanor (he looks just as out of it as the persistently stoned-looking Dynamite) and lack of self-awareness about his social status (he does such un-nerdly things as asking the popular girl to the prom and running for student body president) makes him the perfect best friend for Dynamite. Along with the painfully shy Deb (Tina Majorino, the little girl from "Corrina, Corrina" all grown up), whom Dynamite has some sort of unresolved sexual tension with, they form a teenage-outcast triumvirate.

You're certain to have a lot of giggles watching "Dynamite." The cast's dedication to keeping everything outrageously goofy, not to mention Hess' eccentrically vague direction, will ultimately make you succumb to hysterics. (At times, the movie feels like the longest Dead Milkmen video ever made.) But you may find yourself asking, am I laughing at these people -- or laughing with them? Since nobody in this movie actually laughs, the question grows more intense with each embarrassing moment.

Thankfully, Hess (who wrote the script with his wife, Jerusha) has enough respect for these characters not to turn them into grotesque caricatures. You're more beguiled by these mopes than disgusted by them. Dynamite's defiant persistence alone, keeping his head up even when he has plenty of reasons to keep it down, easily earns him a place in the Movie Geek Hall of Fame, right next to Max Fischer ("Rushmore"), Ted the Geek ("Sixteen Candles") and everyone from "Revenge of the Nerds."

While comparisons to "Rushmore" and other Wes Anderson flicks have been made in regards to "Dynamite," the movie is more reminiscent of the work of Mike Judge. It exhibits the same small-town quirkiness and teenage monotony Judge used in old episodes of "Beavis & Butthead." (If anything, "Dynamite" looks more like what would happen if Judge remade fellow Texas pal Richard Linklater's "Slacker.")

If this movie becomes the cult hit it's so destined to be, expect kids -- and many young adults -- to start impersonating its characters, especially the full-of-future-catchphrases Dynamite. America, meet your new Austin Powers: His name is Napoleon Dynamite.

Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760 or clindsey@newsobserver.com.

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