Pet llamas. Mail-order time machines. Tater tots. Tether ball. These are fixtures in the world of Napoleon Dynamite, a slack-jawed high school nerd from Preston, Idaho. “Napoleon Dynamite” explores the title character’s bizarro world, where his main activities include drawing mythical beasts in his notebooks, “singing” in sign language, and securing a date, any date, for the high school dance. The story line may be prosaic, even lacking, but the movie is by no means plot-driven. It’s more of an excuse to follow Napoleon into his quirky, twisted little world and meet his quirky, twisted little friends.
The film seems to drip with idiosyncratic, hilarious weirdos, such as Kip (Aaron Ruell), Napoleon’s stay-at-home brother who spends his days surfing the Web for online love; his football-obsessed Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who longs for his days of gridiron glory; and Napoleon’s awkward friend Deb (Tina Majorino of “Corrina, Corrina”), who totes a slew of gimp bracelets and a serious side-ponytail. And then there’s his Mexican friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a class-presidential candidate with a teen ‘stache so thin it looks plucked.
You’ll know in the first five minutes whether you’ll like this movie, but if the idea of Napoleon decked out in moon boots and sporting a red curly fro has you giggling weakly, then this is definitely your kind of movie. In his directorial debut, writer/director Jared Hess (a 24-year-old Mormon) teamed up with his wife Jerusha (also Mormon) and an almost exclusively Mormon cast and crew. Who knew Mormons could be so funny?
“Napoleon Dynamite” is charming and hilarious and deserves all the praise it garnered at the Sundance Film Festival. Shot on a shoestring budget of $200,000, the film sold for $4 million and went on to become this summer’s biggest surprise hit. It was so well received that it has since been re-released with an extra five-minute epilogue. Along with iced chai lattes and those hideous $3 fashion slippers that took Manhattan by storm this summer, so too has the re-release been a major summer trend (think “Donnie Darko” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”).
But what is more surprising about “Napoleon” is its online fan club that has grown overnight to include over 50,000 members. And at this very moment, movie geeks nationwide are battling to become the Official Napoleon Dynamite Fan Club President.
Among the remakes, sequels and alien-predator face-offs that have recently passed as movies, “Napoleon Dynamite” was definitely a refreshing and welcome change. And easily the best film I saw this summer.
Continuing on this summer’s train of indie hits was “Garden State.” Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Garden State” was also penned by an aspiring twenty-something: 28-year-old Zach Braff (J.D. of “Scrubs”). Both films are directorial debuts that chronicle today’s youth in their hometowns. But while “Napoleon” veers into surreal territory, “Garden State” stays close to home. New Jersey, in fact.
“Garden State” follows Andrew “Large” Largeman, an aspiring actor with one credit to his name: he played a retarded quarterback in a TV movie. Andrew receives a strange homecoming when he returns to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. He discovers that two of his high school friends work as grave diggers in a cemetery, while another invented silent Velcro and struck it rich. He heads to a house party and watches blankly as his old high school buddies do lines of coke off under-aged girls’ stomachs. And he finally falls asleep only to awaken with the word BALLS scrawled with a Sharpie across his forehead.
Everything in Andrew’s world is distant and strange. He coasts through life with an impossibly blank facial expression and seems to feel nothing. But this probably has something to do with the fact that he’s been taking prescription sedatives since he was 10.
Only when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a girl-next-door type with epilepsy and a passion for hamsters, does Andrew finally wake up — and fall in love.
Funny and smart, “Garden State” starts off with Braff’s finely tuned deadpan humor. But though the film’s first half flaunts Braff’s great sense of comic timing, the second half is heaped with melodrama. Andrew tries to mend his troubled relationship with his estranged father (Ian Holm) and to come to terms with his mother’s tragically strange death — for which he subconsciously blames himself.
Braff tries to lighten this loaded set-up with the romance between Andrew and the ever-endearing Sam. But though the sparks between the two are initially fresh and fun, their interactions soon become trite and predictable. So for a film that promises to be something more, the contrived ending feels bottled and easy.
Nevertheless, Braff is being touted as a new Woody Allen. Well, he is young and funny and Jewish: in one scene, Andrew compares the remnants of Sam’s security blankie to the wailing wall. And certainly, his choice taste in music cannot go unrecognized. If there’s one thing I can’t argue with, it’s the soundtrack. Featuring The Shins, Frou Frou and Nick Drake, as well as The Postal Service in the trailer, the fantastic tracks had the audience sitting through the credits just to see to whom they were listening.
Interestingly, as widely recognized as the film has become, Braff’s Web site has received at least as much, if not more, acclaim. Just as “Napoleon Dynamite’s” site has drawn in thousands of diehard fans, Braff has satisfied obsessive movie geeks everywhere with his blog. In it, Braff chronicles the increasing success of his film and includes his own random thoughts.
Even Braff himself is stunned by the attention his Web site has been getting: “It’s crazy. Our little blog is so big-time now. I feel like I should talk about important things, but fuck it — I’d rather talk about manatees boning.”