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I Won’t Be Voting For Pedro

July 17th, 2006

Last Friday, Vic and I finally watched Napoleon Dynamite. It’d been sitting on our TiVo-Like Device (TM) for months, previously recorded during a free week of HBO. And so, with no other plans for the evening, we decided that we might as well get it out of the queue.

“Why,” you might ask, “would you ever think that you might be the right audience for Napoleon Dynamite?” To be honest, I didn’t. One of the reasons it had remained on the TiVo-Like Device (TM) for so long was that I suspected it would be a tough slog.

Yet, I do feel some obligation to stay on top of the pop zeitgeist, if only to know what the hell the youngsters are talking about. When I performed in a stage production of The Phantom Toolbooth a couple of years ago, the kids snuck a DVD player into the dressing room to watch Napoleon, and they simply roared. Surely it must have something going for it, right?

In case you’ve been lucky enough to avoid it, Napoleon Dynamite is the story (though “story” may be too strong a word) of a high school student whose perpetually slack jaw and half-lidded eyes suggest he is stoned or asleep. Possibly retarded. I’m still not sure.

Despite his zombie demeanor, Napoleon is a seething cauldron of rage, wildly overreacting to slights both deliberate and perceived. It’s not hard to understand why, as we see his desperate loneliness and ongoing persecution by his classmates. A more interesting film might have tried to explore him as a Columbine-in-progress. This is not that film.

I’m pretty sure that we’re meant to root for Napoleon, but after a while, I began to see the bullies’ point. He really is that out of touch from such societal norms as fashion, personality or sapient conversation. Maybe he doesn’t deserve to be abused. But shunned? Absolutely.

Sure, I identified with Napoleon to some extent. I was certainly as fashion-challenged during my own high-school years, but that was partly out of rebellion and partly due of lack of interest. Still, there are fifty other–better–films that evoke that school outsider experience.

And how much of a true outsider is Napoleon when most of the cast appear equally retarded? I began to wonder if there wasn’t something in the water. I found myself welcoming the couple of characters who seemed to recognize that something wasn’t quite right.

About ten minutes into the film, Vic began to laugh with a crazed intensity. “Surely,” I thought, “she can’t be finding this that funny?” After all, we share a similar sense of humor, and I’d barely snickered. It turned out that she wasn’t laughing at the movie, but rather at the absurdity of our subjecting ourselves to it…and the fact that there was still an hour and a half to go.

Now, it would have been reasonable to turn off the TV and do something more rewarding. For instance, gargling glass. I suggested that we could stop, yet neither of us reached for the remote. We were mesmerized by the horror that confronted us. And as he ambled along, I became determined that Napoleon Dynamite would not beat me down.

After an hour passed, I realized that I still had no idea where or when the story was taking place. We eventually figured out that it was Idaho (leading credence to the “something in the water” theory), but I’m still uncertain in which decade it was set. Mentions of chat rooms and online shopping suggest something near to the present day, yet all of the cultural references hailed from the early ’80s.

None of the above would be a problem if the movie was funny. However, it emulates the approximation of humor favored by many of the cartoons on Adult Swim: someone says something odd (complete non-sequitars are best), then there’s a long, awkward pause in which the characters stare vacantly at each other. One of them may blink their eyes, just so you know that the film isn’t stuck in the projector. Then the other person says something odd. Lather, rinse, repeat.

As the film grinds to its conclusion, there’s a subplot about Napoleon’s friend Pedro and his run for class president. The duo are as clueless about mounting a campaign as they are about anything else, and Pedro gives up when it’s time to give a speech to the assembled class. But then (and this is a SPOILER, if you possibly give a shit) Napoleon does a dance. And somehow, everyone loves Napoleon’s dance so much that they vote for Pedro. (Who, by the way, was not the one who danced.)

And that’s the message, I guess. Learn how to dance, and everyone will overlook decades of ingrained class structure and vote for the unpopular kid. I thought for a moment that perhaps there might be a little more to it–for example, the kids recognizing their own inner Napoleons and flaunting the status quo just this once–but no, it was just ’cause Napoleon did a weird dance.

The credits rolled and we thought we were home free. But we hadn’t reckoned with the “credit cookie,” which turned out to be another five minutes involving a wedding and Napoleon riding a horse for reasons which seem as arbitary as anything else in the flick.

Now, I realize that all of the above may seem as if I’m over-analyzing something that’s just supposed to be a dumb, little comedy, and that perhaps I’ve got a colossal stick up my ass. I swear to God that I have a sense of humor. I laughed myself silly during Anchorman, Dodgeball and The 40 Year Old Virgin. It’s just that those movies had…well, jokes, for one. And appealing characters. And jokes.

Clearly, I do not understand youngsters.

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