‘Napoleon’ battles Sundance Syndrome

PARK CITY — The most pronounced difference of opinion at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is not one among critics — there is actually a pretty solid consensus among professional observers as to the strongest films here — but is rather one that runs consistently along a generational divide.

The film in question is a low-budget high school misfit comedy called “Napoleon Dynamite” made by 24-year-old first-time director Jared Hess in his native Preston, Idaho. His partners in the enterprise were his 23-year-old wife Jerusha, who co-wrote, and producer Jeremy Coon; all three studied film at Brigham Young U., a school not hitherto known for providing a fast track to the film industry.

The film concerns a tall, gawky malcontent, his geeky older brother, a failed jock uncle and assorted other losers, all of whom would have been rejected as far too nerdy and antisocial for a John Hughes high school movie of the ’80s — the decade everyone in Preston seems stuck in, based on their wardrobes.

For about 75 minutes, the film makes merciless fun of all the characters for their utter cluelessness, then tacks on a feel-good musical ending that is entirely arbitrary and unlikely, but had the world premiere audience I saw it with whooping and hollering with delight.

One can only presume it was this reaction that helped induce Fox Searchlight to pay between $3 million and $5 million and commit to a 1,200-screen opening for the picture. Among the many deals made at the festival, this is the one that has provoked the most wonderment and speculation among tradesters here.

Why? Because no one I’ve talked to over the age of 30 liked “Napoleon” at all — it’s generally regarded as a Todd Solondz wannabe that ridicules and condescends to its characters, an approach that itself tends to be looked down upon as cheap and immature as one gets older.

SO IT HAS TO BE PRESUMED that, based on the audience, it’s people in their late teens and 20s who will make “Napoleon Dynamite” the teenpic smash Fox Searchlight is counting on.

But this assumption requires a closer examination of who was actually in that first audience that was so vocal in its approval. Every Sundance competition entry has a large contingent of cast, crew and friends present for the first screening. Beyond that, I’m told that many festival volunteers, most of whom are quite young, get tickets to such screenings. Then there’s the fact that this film is, in a sense, a local product, made in a neighboring state a short drive away. I can’t prove it, but it would not be hard to believe that there was a strong vested interest in the picture on the part of much of the audience. The reaction at the subsequent screening at the large Eccles Theater was enthusiastic but not as rousing.

What all this points to is the phenomenon known as the Sundance Syndrome, which refers to films that spark huge reactions here and never really go on to much of a career in the real world. “Happy Texas” essentially established the syndrome, but seemingly every year there are one or two examples of films that create buying frenzies among distributors and then flop — last year “Pieces of April” and “The Singing Detective” were such pictures.

PERHAPS FOX SEARCHLIGHT, one of the most consistently successful specialized distribs, knows something we jaded critics don’t, and they’ll actually be able to snare a $15 million opening weekend gross. If so, I salute their executives and more power to them. Director Hess said at a Q&A that there is already a TV series spinoff in the works; if this is true, I’d love to know how a kid from Preston, Idaho, has the confidence and connections and smarts to put all this together straight out of the university.

But still, it remains to be seen. From a strictly cinematic point of view, the film is, as they say in French, nul, a void, a zero. There’s no way this film would be well-received at other film festivals, or by international audiences. I don’t think any film has ever been snapped up at Sundance and then been offered up on more than 1,000 screens domestically. So it will be very interesting to follow what happens with “Napoleon Dynamite” — to see if it becomes one of the festival’s biggest success stories or merely the latest example of the Sundance Syndrome.

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