Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite & Not Being Part of the Zeitgeist

napoleon-dynamiteYou have to be careful where you purchase your hype from. Media and marketing are the biggest purveyors. A new trailer, on-set pics, news of your favorite actor being in a new movie directed by your favorite director. That usually does the trick. But, I would argue that there are three groups that shape whether you should see a particular movie and if you will like it. Group A is friends. Group B is your community (online, your social scene, your church, your neighborhood, or otherwise). Group C is the mainstream viewing audience. Find the group you identify with the most. Find who you agree with on a consistent basis. That is your group. For all you naysaying, got-to-be-cool, I-liked-them-before-they-were-big hipsters out there, go on enjoying your esoteric German Expressionist shorts, this article is not for you.

I would say, in general, there are a few friends and a few critics whom I can trust that, if they like something, I’ll probably enjoy it. These people are invaluable, and a better litmus test than reading any review, visiting Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes. What it really boils down to, what you really need to overcome, is hype. Hype is a killer of the virgin experience. And, you can’t go into anything cold. Really, you can’t. Just by being birthed into existence, a film has a certain level of hype attached; the aforementioned “favorite actor/actress” is in it, the “favorite director” is making it, the subject matter, the setting, the music, the look. If you know it’s there, you’re going to attach a standard to it. (The tree fell in the woods, and there you were.) Hype of this level is not a problem. It’s why we go to see movies. No, the hype I’m warning you about is another beast when it infects the zeitgeist.

When every media outlet has a piece up about this film. When every critic swears by its originality, uniqueness, coolness, ahead-of-its-time-ness. When a film breaks through the box that contains it and is no longer a story, a script, an actor and a director. This is when we have problems, folks. Group A might do a good job of selling a film outing to you. It could be anything; and even if it sucks, hell, you’ll have a good time with friends. Group B is often a little more serious of a commitment. You go to them to gauge the community interest. This is the “good follower” in you – not a tastemaker – checking if it’s okay to enjoy something you’re hyped about. Depending on what everyone says, you’ll apply for or dismiss the outing. Group C is just like Group B, but now you’re talking about a movement. If you look to identify with the mainstream viewing audience first, out-the-gate, you are probably a casual movie watcher. You want to watch what everyone else is watching. You want to share in the experience, be part of the water-cooler conversation. You want to see the “good” movies, rag on the “bad” movies. And, most of all, you want to have a good time. You do not want to be fucked with, or challenged, or left with your gut spilling open. You want to laugh or cry. You want to say “that was a great movie!”

The point is, in every Group tier I’ve outlined, there’s a level of starter position hype. Movies are built around this. The summer blockbuster, superhero sequel coming out soon? That is marketed to be an event for Group C. Your smaller crime drama or indie darling can be right at home with Group A & B. The question is really, “who do you trust?”

I found my Group(s) a long time ago. By default, because of my tastes and the kinds of films that I gravitate to, Group C is never the group I start with. I go on what my friends say first, then critics that I’ve come to identify with. And this is where my problem with Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite started. I never went to see it when it was Group A chatter. When it was making its rounds in Group B, I clicked off the page or read something else. By the time it was in every college dorm room, along with the COLLEGE poster of John Belushi and the introductory copy of The Boondock Saints every goddamn film student had, I was more than eager to ignore, avoid and downright shit on Napoleon Dynamite. When kids were acting like Jon Heder and quoting “gosh” lines and wearing “Vote for Pedro” shirts, I could actually pinpoint the moment pop culture set sail, leaving me on the shore. And honestly, I was okay with that. I had other things…I did…I mean it…

In finally viewing the generally mediocre Napoleon Dynamite, several things dawned on me:

– the best part of this film is everyone and anything that isn’t the lead. Jon Heder is so obnoxious that I pleaded with the movie to cut to another character or subplot whenever he was on screen. This point is surprising and sucky to me; I loved him with Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory.
– Jared Hess has always occupied this space between Wes Anderson and Jody Hill, and he isn’t as clever or funny as either of them. He does PG-rated comedy with panache, I’ll give him that. I remember liking Nacho Libre quite a bit, but it has been years since I’ve seen that movie, and my pleasant memories could be locked in an unchecked love of Jack Black at the time, and loving making-out with a girl and feeling on her booby while watching. (that would paint any viewing experience with rosy memories for a hetero guy)
– Pedro. I get it, he’s great. And so is Kip and Lafawnduh. And I even enjoyed Uncle Rico, to an extent, trying to capture his 1982 high school glory. And the music, great picks. (Cyndi Lauper, Jamiroquai, The White Stripes, love love love) The dance-off at the end, I had some chuckles.
– BUT, this film’s humor is so broad; like, think, Three Stooges but done poorly by mentally-handicapped manchildren. It just plays out in a very slight way. As I was watching, I never knew exactly what people went so crazy for. The plots, the characters, the gags. Nothing felt completely real, or completely refined into a joke. Personally, I think Napoleon Dynamite skated along on its midwestern flavor for a long, long time. It was so unique to viewers that, by the time it became a flag of the zeitgeist of Group C, I bet many just went along for the ride, just so they wouldn’t be made fun of by their friends.
– One excellent thing Hess has always done, and is well on-display here, is the bucking of stereotypical reaction to outsiders and minorities. When you expect midwesterners to shun or get racist on the Hispanics, they don’t. They treat outsiders and minorities, like Pedro and his cousins, like they do anyone else. So I applaud that. Even though it is another detail that makes this film never fully tangible; almost sci-fi.

Not a great film. But not offensively bad either.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)


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