- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Husband and wife filmmaking team Jared and Jerusha Hess think Napoleon Dynamite can join the pantheon of classic nerd heroes simply by talking funny and affecting the mien of the outcast. But nerds are people, too, something the duo never quite comes to grips with in their new indie comedy.

“Napoleon Dynamite” offers flashes of wit that could serve the team well in future outings. It’s not a stretch to imagine them maturing into a wise humorist team. Consider “Napoleon” a baby step toward that end, one that’s more diverting than the average teen comedy but almost utterly lacking in soul.

Set in an Anywhere school in Idaho, Napoleon (Jon Heder) looks every inch the high school pariah, from his frizzy ‘do to the way he breathes out of his slack mouth whenever the bullies circle his locker. He lives with his grandmother and older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), but while his brother’s fey behavior masks an aggressive id, the grandma seems a robust role model who should be able to snap Napoleon out of his funk.

Any chance of that dissipates when Grandma breaks her coccyx in a dune buggy accident, leaving the boys on their own.

Enter Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), called on to look after the boys even though both are old enough to fend for themselves. Lucky for us, since Mr. Gries’ turn here provides the big laughs and elicits the most pity from us. He’s a former jock who never quite became an All-American hero. Rather than move on, Uncle Rico coifs his hair like an ‘80s god and patterns his clothes to match, as if willing time to reverse course.

The film’s half-hearted attempt at narrative finds Napoleon helping his equally obtuse pal Pedro (Efren Ramirez) run for class president against the school’s uber-babe (Haylie Duff, sister of Hilary). Meanwhile, Napoleon all but ignores the advances of Deb (Tina Majorino), another local misfit who is inexplicably drawn to him.

The Coen brothers (1987’s “Raising Arizona,” 1998’s “The Big Lebowski”) are often unfairly chided for being mean-spirited toward their characters. The charge might be leveled with far more justice against the Hesses, who set up “Dynamite’s” sad sacks just so they can gleefully knock them down, giving them virtually no tools from which to build a life for themselves.

Some slapstick moments seem constructed out of thin air, with no regard to context. The one glorious exception comes when Napoleon performs an impromptu dance when the class elections require some sort of talent presentation.

Watching Mr. Heder strut, gyrate and hurl his wiry frame across the stage is enough to show that the actor’s got the goods to add sorely needed new dimensions to his Napoleon.

Real-life nerds have enough trouble during their high school years. Films such as “Napoleon Dynamite” shouldn’t pick on them, too.

**1/2

WHAT: “Napoleon Dynamite”

RATING: PG (Harsh language and slapstick violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Jared Hess. Written by Mr. Hess and Jerusha Hess. Original music by John Swihart.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.com/ napoleondynamite/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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