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‘Napoleon Dynamite’ doesn't quite hit the mark

The story of an eccentric kid who doesn't quite fit in and his quest to help his best friend win the student body presidency.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s easy to imagine Napoleon Dynamite as the subject of series of promos on MTV, like the ones with Donal Logue as the greasy-haired Jimmy the Cab Driver, who antagonized his passengers with tirades from behind the wheel of his taxi.

You could see Jon Heder, the star of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” taking part in his daily activities as the nerdy title character: playing tether ball by himself in the high-school yard, drawing sketches of “ligers,” the lion-tiger hybrids that are his favorite creatures, and working up a sweat to a hip-hop dance tape.

Then it would be on to the new Avril Lavigne video.

In such small, sporadic doses, Napoleon would have been far more tolerable. There are some funny lines and ideas in the first feature from 24-year-old director Jared Hess, which he co-wrote with his wife, Jerusha Hess, and shot and set in his hometown of Preston, Idaho.

As the surly hero of a feature-length movie, albeit a short one, Napoleon’s two-dimensionality becomes painfully evident, as does the utter lack of plot.

(The opening credits are clever, though: The names of the cast and crew are written on various plates of food using condiments, including corn dogs with mustard and tater tots with ketchup.)

What happens after that feels more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive story:

Bushy-haired, bespectacled Napoleon goes to Preston High School each day wearing some kind of hideous, cheapo T-shirt adorned with horses or unicorns. He squirrels away his cafeteria tater tots by cramming them in his zippered pants pockets for a classroom snack.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s scrawny, mustachioed older brother, Kip Dynamite (Aaron Ruell), stays home and chats for hours with his cyber girlfriend, LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), and anxiously awaits the day he’ll meet her in person. Once she arrives, she gives him a head-to-toe, hip-hop makeover that makes him look like a dorky Eminem.

Their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a former quarterback who constantly relives his high school glory days, moves in with them and brings his get-rich-quick schemes, which involve time machines and Tupperware.

Then Napoleon’s new friend, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a Mexican immigrant, decides to challenge the popular Summer (Haylie Duff, Hilary’s sister) in the student body election. Helping with the campaign is another misfit, Deb (Tina Majorino, who provides one of the film’s few sources of warmth and kindness), who makes lanyard key chains and shoots glamour shot portraits at the mall.

Each character is his or her own self-contained, one-note joke. You can rely on them to be funny much of the time, but don’t expect them to evolve — the Hesses have made them all consistently weird for weird’s sake.

There is a certain makeshift charm to the movie, though, that will probably earn it a cult following. So will its fashionable time warp — the clothes, hairstyles and furnishings suggest that it takes place in 1982, but the existence of the Internet indicates otherwise.

But then “Napoleon Dynamite” ends with an awkward stage performance in front of the whole school — this time, Napoleon doing the robot — just like “Jersey Girl,” “About a Boy,” “Love Actually” and a lot of other recent movies with much bigger budgets.