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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #320: Napoleon Dynamite

"Tina, you fat lard! Eat your food!"

I'm not usually a fan of geek-chic tourism. It strikes me as mild cultural appropriation, lazy, opportunistic, and even a bit exploitative. Oh, look, the kids we laughed at in junior high, let's laugh at them again. There's a modest nod to making these dorks and dweebs the heroes of the story - think Revenge of the Nerds, or the Big Bang Theory - but really we're still just laughing at them. For every gag that unifies us as children of the simplistic and early-tech 80s, there are ten that make these characters the butt of jokes about how clueless they are, how apart from the mainstream, how socially awkward. As with so many other things, it's a fine line between laughing with and laughing at.

All of that said, Napoleon Dynamite was this bizarre and unique bolt of lightning. Made on a budget of $400,000 (only $1,000 of which was paid to star Jon Heder), it out-quirkies Wes Anderson and out-oddballs the Coen Brothers. There's a rich supporting cast of outcasts, from Pedro to Deb to Uncle Rico, all of whom inhabit their own strange realities with a sort of admirable individuality, but it's Napoleon Dynamite himself that is the center of this stuff-from-under-the-sofa universe. He's larger than life in both person and personality, a gargantuan geek in all his tall, ginger-fro'ed, moon-booted glory. He's either way behind his peers or way ahead - like with Cosmo Kramer, it's hard to tell sometimes. He likes to draw magical animals and stuff tater tots in his cargo pants for later and work on, apparently, his bo-staff skills. Napoleon owns his offbeat ways, having long since abandoned any effort to fit into the narrower culture of American high schoolery.

I like to think it's that lack of self-consciousness that gives him his weird charisma, more than any dance moves or angry one-liners or quixotic campaign management. He is who he is, whether feeding Tina the Llama or dominating his would-be girlfriend at tetherball. There is nothing phony about Napoleon Dynamite, nothing fake or assumed. What you see - and there's a lot to see - is what you get.

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