I thought it was Dynamite!

So I went to Napoleon Dynamite with a friend last night. For the uninitiated, it’s an independent film made by several BYU grads. They entered it into Sundance, where it was apparently wildly popular. A movie studio bought it, and now it is being slowly rolled out on the limited release model. It’s been in D.C. for a couple of months now, and is still gaining momentum. (Full house Saturday night.)

The plot you ask? Well, imagine your most misanthropic stage of adolescence–add in a red ‘fro, a permanent slack-jawed look, moon-boots, living in Preston Idaho, a dysfunctional family, and a strange love of tater-tots, and voila, our protaganist Napoleon. I didn’t really explain the plot, because there isn’t much of one. It’s mainly a series of vignettes, all leading up to a school election and the funniest dance scene you’ve ever seen in the movies….really. There are no overt Mormon references, but lots of markers: asking your date to the dance through elaborate passive schemes, modest prom dresses, boondoggle at scout camp, your mother forcing you to date the loser kid, future farmers of America, really big bangs way after they went out of style, and the fabulously colorful substitute swearing–gooooosh! frickin’! iiidiot!

I’ve seen the movie twice. The first time, a month or so ago, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in a movie. This time I took a friend who grew up in the Northeast. I had admittedly talked up the movie a little too much, and the audience was full of teenagers, who had obviously seen the movie several times, and were laughing in advance of the jokes. But really, my friend didn’t get it. This is a person with a highly developed, and wonderfully subversive sense of humor. She thought that perhaps the humor was from the clever manipulation of cultural references that she wasn’t familiar with. Ultimately, we figured out that she just found the movie depressing, and it seemed mean to laugh at the characters–dampening the humor of it.

Which makes me wonder, is “stereotyping” humor only funny if you are skewering your own culture, and is the audience then limited to members of that culture? Am I cold-hearted and unChristian for howling with laughter at the rural Mormons? Am I really cold-hearted and unChristian because I needed someone else to point out to me that it was kinda sad? The thing is, I still think the film is brilliant, but in true Mormon fashion, wonder if I should feel guilty about it…..


  1. *Note: no spoilers in this post*

    I thought the opening credits were some of the most comically inspired frames of film I’ve seen in a long time.

    I work aong a rather cynical crowd and ND has become the talk of the workplace. For those who have seen it, it’s all they can talk about, and in a good way. For those who haven’t, well… they are mocked mercilessly by those who have.

    One woman even came into the office last week with her hair all pulled to one side in a ponytail a la Deb. I couldn’t stop laughing!

  2. Dave,
    The music is straight from the 80s (not to mention the Ricks t-shirt; at least, if I remember right, it references 1982). And, in spite of the fact that I detest everything the 80s stand for (the fact that Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, and the jazz from the decade all suck–Stevie Ray Vaughn may be the only redeeming quality), ND was the funniest movie I saw this year, and even funnier the second time.

    And I have to second brayden (about the uninitiated in rural life enjoying it); I saw it in NY and San Diego, in the midst of crowds that didn’t seem to be LDS, and my mom may have been the only person in those two theaters not to find it, if not engaging, at least hilarious.

  3. Haven’t seen it yet. There are two groups, those who have some memory of that era (and laugh while wincing) and those who don’t but still enjoy seeing the good ‘ole days on screen. If teenagers like ND, it’s not because they remember the 70s, it’s because the movie makes it believable and funny for those who were never there. The 70s have become the new 50s, although we haven’t seen anything like American Grafitti (cinema) or Happy Days (TV) yet.

  4. I also think that people assume the film is set a few decades back because Jared Hess did not seem to preoccupied with keeping up with or creating fashion trends. I thought that this hilarious film hit it right on the money as far as wardrobe goes. In small towns (such as the place in Central WA where I am from) there really are people who dress up in American Flag pants AND think its awesome.

  5. I just saw it tonight. From the opening credits on, I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I grew up in a really small town in Southern Utah and I was reliving it all.

    But I also found it extremely sad in spots. The underlying psychological problems that would cause bed-wetting at that age. The humiliation of it made public. The clueless racism of the Principle. The general all-encompassing teenage anguish of high school.

    Yet on the whole, I would say it had a very positive message about being a clueless misfit, and still having a valuable life to live. Occasionally Napoleon was an object of pity or derision, but more often he was a magnified version of all my own teenage angst and cluelessness. I lied about improbable things to make myself seem cooler. I did things I thought were cool but were NOT cool. I pushed myself on people who were not interested and then found myself rejected. I believed and/or hoped I had “skills” that were SO not going to happen. The parts where I laughed the hardest were when I relived my own awkwardness through Napoleon.

    But he is also that person I looked at and said, “I’m not cool, but at least I’m cooler than him.” But the beauty of it is that this movie showed that “being him”, being the one with the worst hair, and the least social skills, and the messed up family, and the impossible silly dreams isn’t necessarily the horror I thought it was. Life is good when you’re Napoleon Dynamite. There’s tots, cool bikes, good friends. It’s frick’en sweet!

    I think there are probably some people who see ND and laugh *at* Napoleon. I think there are some people who see it and feel sorry for him. But I think the deeper truth and appeal of the movie was that neither approach does him justice.

    It’s 3:00 Am and I’m still up because I was sooo thirsty at the theater and I had to choose between sugar and caffine, and I picked caffine and lost!

  6. I know a lot of non-LDS academic types who have seen the show, and all of them thought it was hilarious. Most of them come from non-rural locations, so I don’t think enjoying the movie is a product of our insider’s view (although it certainly helps). Besides, MTV endorsed the movie and they’re about as urban and non-LDS as you can get.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    I liked it too.

    Aaron B

  8. I need to see this movie. I have a standard set of stories I tell about growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho. I wonder how many of my stories are in this movie. I was once filmed being pulled behind a truck on a board as a part of an elaborate scheme to ask a girl out to a dance…

  9. Mephibosheth says:

    I was talking to some other people who assumed that it was set in the 80’s also. I think one of the main premises of the movie is that everyone is stuck in the 80’s; it takes a few decades for popular culture to filter into small town life.

  10. I’m kind of surprised my wife and I haven’t seen this yet. This post is just increasing the desire to get out and see it. :)

  11. Okay . . . 70s, 80s, 90s, whatever. Let’s just call it “the late 20th-century look and feel.” Like I said, I haven’t seen it yet.

  12. Mephibosheth says:

    Roger Ebert’s review of the movie said he also felt that laughing at the characters was mean. I wonder if your friend happened to read it before seeing the film.

    I also wonder if your friend is used to the feel and pace of an independent film, which is going to be a bit slower and more artistic than the latest summer blockbuster playing down the hall. ND is a movie for people who can handle a thirty second scene of a 30 year-old man being towed behind a bicycle on rollerblades.

    Being from Cleveland myself, I have never seen such a thing, but it is a perfect reflection of the small-town mentality I’m sure we’ve all experienced –in his own bustling metropolis of Preston, ID, Kip confidently rolls into town completely self-assured that he IS all that and a bag of chips.

    In my opinion, that is the beauty of ND. It just may take a little more thinking to appreciate than the latest Jim Carrey movie.

  13. The Washington Post critics both gave it a green light. One mentioned that he wondered if he should feel bad laughing at the rurals, but then thought that just wondering that was a bit patronizing. Oh, it’s hard being part of the eastern elite! So many nuances to navigate, and agonize over! :o)

    Yeah, MTV sure seems to have hit its target audience as well. The movie was packed on Saturday night. (I think it was sold out) and it’s been playing here for weeks. The audience was full of large groups of teenagers. (Who were kind of boisterous, but it was fun….nice to see that kids these days can appreciate good clean fun…Oh, that makes me sound old…)

  14. Umm, Dave, have you seen “That 70’s Show.” That was my life.

  15. Ummm, I don’t think it was set in the 70s. If you look at the credits in the beginning, it says his student id is from 2004-2005. Also, the popular girls dance to, if I’m not mistaken, some kind of backstreet boys or annoying boy band song. I think it’s more of….hey look at their hair, they’re 20 years behind the time. (At the very least it’s the late eighties/early nineties. Forever Young didn’t come out until I was in jr. high.)

  16. We ended up going on fan night and people were dressed up and had goodie bags to help act out the movie. Fox Studios got behind them and gave out T-shirts (“give me your tots!”) and served quesadillas prior to the show. Good time!

    As for the film: two big thumbs up. I loved it.

  17. We saw it at a small theatre in American Fork along with seven of our grandchildren. We laughed and laughed and laughed. The grand-kids mostly ate popcorn and drank pop. But the older ones also laughed and laughed. Driving home we probably laughed more than in the theatre just thinking about the dumb things in this very funny show. Long live Rexberg