Absurdist piece about a rural community of clueless cretins who careen through life like poorly played pinballs represents the definition of the comedy of condescension and ridicule. Lots of laughs for those who enjoy sight of bottom dwellers doing stupid things. Could easily be a pic that hits big at Sundance but can't find its way in the real world.

An absurdist piece about a rural community of clueless cretins who careen through life like poorly played pinballs, “Napoleon Dynamite” represents the definition of the comedy of condescension and ridicule. There are lots of laughs for those who enjoy the sight of bottom dwellers doing stupid things that make them look even more idiotic, and pic’s fans and detractors may be very strictly separated by a generation gap, with viewers in their teens and early 20s repping its prime enthusiasts. Still, this rare Idaho-made effort, which was picked up after its Sundance first screening by Fox Searchlight, could easily be the latest example of the “Happy Texas” syndrome, a picture that hits big at Sundance but can’t find its way in the real world.

Exhibiting a style that makes Todd Solondz look like an exemplar of big-hearted generosity toward his characters, director-cowriter Jared Hess studied film at Brigham Young University, where he met his co-writer and wife Jerusha and producer Jeremy Coon. Hess’ short, “Peluca,” showed at Slamdance last year.

Tall, gawky, bespectacled, gape-mouthed and capped with a frizzy carrot-top, Napoleon (Jon Heder) bumps around high school with his eyes barely open and speaks in a whiney tone of perpetual and angry exasperation. Girls steer clear of him, other boys hammer him at will and life generally sucks.

Things aren’t any better at home, a plain little place he shares with Grandma and much older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), the latter a wimpy nerd who spends most of his day chatting on-line with a faraway romantic soulmate. When Grandma lands in the hospital after a dune buggy accident, the boys are looked after by Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), an aging macho man tormented by thoughts of how his life would have been different had his team won the state football championship back in ’82.

In fact, except for a few tell-tale signs like the Internet and certain musical cues, these characters could easily be living more than 20 years ago; fashion-wise, that’s definitely where they’re at, and everyone is made to look so completely out-of-it that it seems a miracle that anyone in Preston, Idaho — Hess’ hometown, where pic was shot — can get even get through school, hold down a job or pay taxes, much less become a cultured or civilized creature.

But story and plausibility don’t constitute the glue that provides “Napoleon Dynamite” with its sense of continuity. Credit for that goes to the consistently uncouth, gross, dim and anti-social behavior that Napoleon and all those around him indulge in. Hess gets off quite a few surprising gags that have an effect simply because they come so suddenly and so completely out of left field; people throw things like steak at each other for no reason, Uncle Rico begins hawking herbal breast enhancements door-to-door, Napoleon gets a date by sending the girl a grotesque drawing of her, and Kip’s soulmate, when she shows up in the flesh, turns out to be a hot black mama from Detroit who immediately transforms her whitebread correspondent into a kerchief-and-chains-wearing gangsta.

Compounding the arbitrary, anything-for-a-laugh approach is pic’s eagerness to take cheap shots whenever possible, to belittle the characters distant hopes of ever getting a life. When Napoleon decides to help new friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the school’s lone Latino, in his campaign to become class president against a popular blonde, one’s elemental rooting interest is thwarted because they have nothing going for them, nothing to say. Napoleon pulls a rabbit out of a hat by performing an unexpectedly rousing dance at the school assembly, but this seems more than anything like a calculated feel-good moment meant to pave the way toward an unearned happy ending for the most downtrodden of the town’s losers.

In their own deadpan way, thesps are winning, with the awkward, long-limbed Heder in the title role providing undeniable gravitational weight at pic’s center. Gries and Ruell have their comic moments as well, even if the material they’re working with is not to one’s taste.

While the film’s cheapness cannot be disguised, production values are respectably professional for a work by kids right out of school.

Napoleon Dynamite

Production

A Fox Searchlight release. Produced by Jeremy Coon, Sean C. Covel, Chris Wyatt. Executive producers, Coon, Jory Weitz. Directed by Jared Hess. Screenplay, Jared and Jerusha Hess.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Munn Powell; editor, Jeremy Coon; music, John Swihart; production designer, Cory Lorenzen; art director, Curt Jenson; costume designer, Jerusha Hess; sound (Dolby Digital), Matt Davis; assistant director, Tim Skousen; casting, Jory Weitz. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2004. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Napoleon Dynamite - Jon Heder Uncle Rico - Jon Gries Kip - Aaron Ruell Pedro - Efren Ramirez Deb - Tina Majorino Rex - Diedrich Bader Summer Wheatly - Haylie Duff Don - Trevor Snarr Lafawnduh - Shondrella Avery

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