Here’s a key to nerd-chic scriptures: Everyone comes from somewhere, unfabulous as that place may be. And many establish their updated identities at new addresses by laughing at the places they pray to God they’ve left safely behind. Sometimes dorkdom is a function of geography (”Fargo”), sometimes of mind-set (TV’s ”Freaks and Geeks”). But whatever its genesis, geekitude requires wounded anger (”Welcome to the Dollhouse”), confident style (”The Royal Tenenbaums”), or bleak compassion (”Ghost World”) to advance the attitude from that of fashion statement to affecting art. At this point in the cinema of psychological slacking, we ought to demand more from a story about how it’s hip to be square than deadpan faces and thrift-shop decor.
But judging from this year’s slick faux-cornpone comedy, Napoleon Dynamite, affectless laugh-at-the-locals humor has become the easiest way for an indie filmmaker to cash in on his past while preparing for a lucrative Hollywood studio comedy career. Set in the vaguely extraterrestrial Preston, Idaho, the 2004 Sundance crowd-pleaser has got the tableaux suitable for Diane Arbus photos down pat, but no real interest in the people negotiating those life situations. The title character (Jon Heder), a gangly high school alpha nerd, is notable for his head of frizz reminiscent of a heartland Frederick Douglass, and his tendency to mutter ”ID-iot!” at the iniquities of daily existence at Preston High School. Napoleon — the name suggests parentage of some wit, although no Dynamite parent makes an appearance — would have been a piquant extra in the background of a ”Mean Girls” lunchroom scene. But filmmaker Jared Hess (who cowrote the script with his wife, Jerusha Hess) installs Napoleon front and center as a punchline in and of himself — and as that dispiriting product of narrative defeat, a symbol.
But of what? Is Napoleon’s life really so miserable in the snug, brick anywhere-in-America house he shares with his grandmother (Sandy Martin) and equally noodly older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell)? Granny enjoys dirt-bike racing and keeps a pet llama; Kip acquires a girlfriend in an online chat room, a vavoomy black woman named LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery) who arrives by bus and appears to truly dig her milquetoast man — why is that worth laughing at? Napoleon befriends a sad-eyed Mexican classmate named Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who asks the school’s snippiest queen bee (Haylie Duff, sister of Hilary) to the prom and dares to run for class president: Why is that so hilarious? Where school life in ”Election” and ”Rushmore” becomes a crucible out of which character is forged, ”Napoleon Dynamite” treats life’s humiliations and triumphs as interchangeably insignificant.
This leaves audiences free to laugh without caring — a defense that, indeed, detracts from a better appreciation of Heder’s marvelously singular performance in the title role. The 26-year-old Brigham Young University graduate assumes the Gumby posture of the socially challenged so believably that when Napoleon busts out in a climactic, snake-hipped dance sequence in front of the whole Preston High population, the sight is a sexy shock. Frizzy sizzle like this has got to come from someplace. Geek-chic movies that don’t bother mapping the route are nowheresville.