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It's All Geek To Me 

Misfit movie alternates between cool and cruel

Just this past month, Turner Classic Movies presented a 19-film salute to the legendary Saul Bass, the man who almost single-handedly turned opening-credit sequences into an art form. Not one to merely throw blocky letters onto the screen, Bass would create elaborate, visually arresting intros that often were as entertaining as the movies that followed them (among his many credits were Psycho, West Side Story and The Age of Innocence). Decades after Bass helped jumpstart this celluloid innovation, it's gratifying to know that many filmmakers are still pouring resources and imagination into their respective pictures' credits: One look at the opening salvo of, say, Spider-Man 2 shows that this sub-medium is alive and well.

I suspect that Bass (who passed away in 1996) would have loved the opening credits in Napoleon Dynamite. Director Jared Hess presents the names of the cast and crew members either on plates of food or on common items that (as we soon discover) are used by the film's sad sack protagonist. One person's name is spelled out with condiments on a hamburger; another has his scrawled on a scrap of lined notebook paper; yet another can be spotted on the side of a Chapstick. It's a memorable opener, one of the best I've seen recently, yet it also hints at the problem that rests at the off-center of Napoleon Dynamite: What sort of movie is this anyway? The intro suggests a frothy comedy; the film that follows has many funny moments but ultimately feels more like an abject lesson in utter humiliation.

The name Napoleon Dynamite comes courtesy of rocker Elvis Costello, though the treatment of the character frequently owes more to Lou Costello. A sucker who never gets an even break, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a case study in high school geekiness: A beanpole with an unruly nest of curly red hair (you suspect birds would set up shop there if the guy would ever stop moving), the societal misfit stumbles around with eyes half-shut and mouth half-open, the apparent bastard child of Carrot Top and Shelley Duvall. When he isn't getting slammed into his locker by the jocks, he whiles away the days at his Idaho high school playing tetherball with himself.

At home, the situation is no less gloomy. He and his 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), an even bigger nerd who spends hours on the Internet chatting with "babes," live with their grandmother (Sandy Martin) and her pet llama. Once Grandma gets injured while jumping a sand dune on her ATV, the boys have to put up with the presence of their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a lunkhead who constantly rhapsodizes about the big game against State back in 1982. But at least Napoleon has finally made a couple of friends who can take his mind off those who bother him (it's rare when he's not calling someone "Idiot!"). Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is the new kid in town, a soft-spoken, slow-witted Mexican immigrant who decides to run for Student Body President against a popular blonde cheerleader (Haylie Duff, Hilary's older sister). And Deb (Tina Majorino) is a sweet, shy kid who's trying to raise money for college by selling homemade keychains and offering glamour shot sessions.

Napoleon Dynamite is an odd little movie that often seems as unsure of itself as its protagonist. Napoleon himself isn't exactly ingratiating, and it's impossible to tell whether Hess and his co-writer (and wife) Jerusha Hess mean for us to laugh with him or at him. If it's the latter, then how exactly are we, the audience members, any different than the bullies who torment him for the duration of the movie? It's one thing to guffaw at a character whose ridiculousness invites affectionate ribbing (for example, Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau), but it's quite another to ask us to chuckle at a person so realistically depicted that he could easily have been attending our own high school (where I suspect most of us would have given him a wide berth as well). Clumsy as they were, even John Hughes' string of teen flicks revealed sympathy for their dorky protagonists, a measure of empathic understanding noticeably absent in this film.

If Hess' goal was to render an accurate portrait of the inner circles of high school hell, his movie is too fanciful to put over that notion. Unlike Todd Solondz's acidic Welcome to the Dollhouse, rife with stinging perceptions, Napoleon Dynamite ends up diluting its potency with some unbelievable side trips. Kip and Uncle Rico are clearly morons, but would they really spend good money to buy a "time machine" on eBay? (This culminates with a silly gag involving injured genitalia.) Would someone with as little to offer as the vapid and juvenile Kip really end up with a successful online match? And the story strand involving Pedro's bid for school office leads to a selfless act on Napoleon's part that unites the entire student body behind him -- ummm, in what universe?

Still, cruel or not, there's no denying that the movie is frequently funny, especially when Napoleon is having to cope with the imbecilic behavior of his brother and their uncle. Tina Majorino, a 90s child actress (Waterworld, Andre) who took off several years to concentrate on school, returns to the big screen with a delicate portrayal, providing the film with its sole semblance of genuine compassion. And as the gangly lead, newcomer Jon Heder delivers a fearless performance that's almost breathtaking in its wormy detail -- regardless of our reservations about the character, Heder nails the dude's idiosyncrasies with frightening precision. Now whether this pays off in multiple film offers remains to be seen: The pitfalls of typecasting combined with the actor's own unorthodox appearance may limit his appeal. But if there's a Revenge of the Nerds remake on the horizon, he's their man.

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