It's impossible not to admire the commitment involved in making Napoleon Dynamite. Shot on a meager budget in Preston, Idaho, the hometown of director Jared Hess (who co-wrote the film with his wife, Jerusha Hess), the film stays focused on its vision of rural America as a comic wonderland of thrift-store-outfitted wackiness. Sure, it quickly turns into a one-note exercise in laughing at the yokels, but at least it has a vision. Similarly, star Jon Heder settles on a single facial expression—a furrowed, angry brow over open-mouthed befuddlement—to sum up his eponymous high-school misfit, and he holds that look from the first frame to the last. True, it's more caricature than character, and trying to care what happens to him is a bit like trying to get emotionally invested in the fates of Beavis and Butt-Head, but there's no denying that Hader makes simple, clear choices about his character and sticks with them. Whether that can be called acting is another matter.
An episodic revue of calculated whimsy and artificial awkwardness, Napoleon Dynamite has one trick: It puts a cartoonish misfit character in a potentially embarrassing situation, then waits for the inevitable. Sometimes, the embarrassment belongs to Hader, who spends his time sketching fantastical creatures, when he isn't talking up his nunchaku skills. At other times, it belongs to Jon Gries, who plays an uncle so stuck in the past that at one point he orders a time machine to return him to his 1982 football-player glory days. (It doesn't work. What a dumb-ass.) Only new student Efren Ramirez, Hader's only friend, lacks the self-consciousness to feel embarrassed, leading to a seemingly ill-considered run for class president that provides Napoleon Dynamite's only semblance of a plot. It also allows the film to score some unearned points by taking a stand against the inevitable, dull tyranny of the popular kids. If this didn't seem so much like a film made to make those same kids bust a gut laughing at nerds, the ploy might even have worked.
The parade of misfits over a bottomless pit of humiliation suggests that Hess has spent time with the works of Todd Solondz. The formal compositions, out-of-time production design, and attempts at wistfulness suggest that he's familiar with Wes Anderson. But the sweetness that the film manages seems like an afterthought, an attempt to take the edge off the cruelty. Napoleon Dynamite only thinks its heart is in the right place.