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The Emperor of the Dorks: Josh Heder plays a time-warp geek in 'Napoleon Dynamite.'

Freaks and Geeks

'Napoleon Dynamite' ignites nerd-dom

By David Fear

PITY THE POOR NERDS of the world not for their perpetual awkwardness, their stillborn social skills or the fact that quality pocket protectors are hard to find. They currently suffer from an even worse affliction: overexposure. The caricature of the classic square—Coke-bottle glasses, donkey-bray laughs—has become such a part of the cultural landscape that they've lost their ability to affect us. It used to be that you could have them burst into a sitcom apartment for instant laughter and/or pop-cultural anthropology. Now, well, the geeks who would inherit the Earth are just another stereotype.

You can look at Napoleon Dynamite as either the final word on nerd-dom or that last nail in their coffin; either way, we've seen the überdork, and he wears a bitchen pair of moon boots. Our hero, Napoleon (Jon Heder), seems as if he might have been constructed in a lab from the spare parts of other recognizable misfits: Urkel's questionable couture, Beavis' ticked-off tenor tone and any number of bits from old-school drips and dweebs. Napoleon lives with an even more nebbish older brother (Aaron Ruell), and a grandmother fixated on her pet llama. When she gets into an accident, the boys' Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to "baby-sit." Rico has problems of his own, like a penchant for anachronistic machismo, a moustache 30 years past its sale date and a fixation on 1982—the year he could have taken his high school football team to the championship.

Actually, Rico's refusal to let go of the past isn't unusual in Preston, Idaho, since the whole town seems to be carbon-dated from the era of crimped hair and puffy prom-dress sleeves. The best part of director Jared Hess' debut is his accumulation of details designed to sketch out the land-of-the-lost feel (Trapper Keepers! Corny pop music!). Unfortunately that's where the movie's comedy begins and ends, as Hess seems to feel that the mere existence of these oddball characters stuck in a fashion-faux-pas world is enough to fuel endless guffaws. There are a few strands of plot, involving a smitten young lass (Tina Majorino) and Napoleon's best friend, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), running for class president against the snooty popular girl, that prime you for the electric-boogaloo revenge climax. Mostly, though, it's just a singular comic setup that acts as its own punch line.

The film's schlock-and-awe amassing of kitsch could sustain a short film, but it just isn't enough to power an entire feature. And like Napoleon's favorite doodle subject "the ly-ger"—a mythical creature that's half lion and half tiger—Napoleon Dynamite seems stuck between two worlds: one where sympathy is doled out to our misunderstood genius and one where the misanthrope cinema of the '90s reigns supreme, inviting mockery to be doled out to everybody. Its desire to smash characters' faces into cakes and then eat the delicacies, too, wouldn't seem nearly as glaring if there were a point besides, Hey, aren't these people morons? As Napoleon would probably mutter: Well, no duh! Fact is, we've seen the backhanded tributes to nerdophilia a million times now, and while the familiarity hasn't necessarily bred contempt, it does require that one brings something new to the table besides the desire to just drop a smart-ass bomb.

Napoleon Dynamite (PG; 86 min.), directed by Jared Hess, written by Jared and Jerusha Hess, photographed by Munn Powell and starring Jon Heder, opens Friday at Camera 12 and Century 25 in San Jose.

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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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