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By Brad Cook | February 25, 2005

“Napoleon Dynamite” is the latest release in a genre I’d call “offbeat movies.” Or “funky s**t.” Or whatever you want to call it. You know, movies written and made by people like Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou”), and Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Sideways”). Some are funkier and more offbeat than others, but the common threads running through all of their work feature colorful characters and strange situations. You could view Terry Gilliam as their predecessor. Or not; I’m not talking an exact science here, like the taxonomy of filmmaking or something. Gosh!

So, anyway, you could add Jared and Jerusha Hess to that list. If you want. I seriously doubt they’d care if you did. Or didn’t. Or whatever. ‘Cause their film “Napoleon Dynamite” is still way cool anyway and seems to have taken on a life of its own, existing below the radar of most parents and grandparents while their teenage and 20-something kids laugh hysterically over such lines as “You know, there’s like a butt-load of gangs at this school. This one gang kept wanting me to join because I’m pretty good with a bowstaff.” Or: “Well, you have a sweet bike. And you’re really good at hooking up with chicks. Plus you’re like the only guy at school who has a mustache.”

Either you’re hip to it or you’re not. Whatever. Gosh!

Okay, I’ll stop now. I have to admit that was fun, which is why I liked “Napoleon Dynamite” so much. While the plot is paper thin and seems to exist only to give Napoleon and his supporting cast weird things to say and do, the characters are so colorful that such shortcomings don’t matter much. In a way, this movie is like an anti-John Hughes film, with a story that doesn’t offer any satisfactory resolutions or life-changing lessons, just a look at rural life filtered through the Hess brothers’ eyes.

Napoleon is an eccentric high school student with odd mannerisms and an even stranger way of talking. He lives with his grandmother and his older brother, Kip, who appears to be in his 20s but who seems to be even more clueless than Napoleon. When grandma gets hurt during a vacation, she sends their Uncle Rico, who lives in a van and obsesses over what he thinks was his missed chance at glory when he was on the high school football team, to run the house until she gets back. Considering that Rico is just as clueless as Napoleon and Kip, it’s no surprise that the situation quickly disintegrates.

Meanwhile, Napoleon meets a new kid at school named Pedro, who gradually shows him how to be more assertive. Our hero decides to help Pedro run for class president, with assistance from a shy girl named Deb, who Pedro asks to the big dance. Napoleon wishes he could be with her instead; the sequence where he gets set up with a girl named Trisha and gives her a hideous portrait is one of the funniest in the film. At home, Kip has fallen in love with a woman he met in an online chat room and invites her to fly out stay with him, which throws a wrench into Rico’s plans to have Kip help him sell crappy housewares. Lafawnduh, who lives in Detroit and is black, arrives to transform Kip from a dorky white guy into a dorky white guy who acts like he’s a rap gangsta. Funny stuff.

While some filmmakers might feel the need to take all these threads and tie them together somehow, the Hess brothers felt content to let them run their course, sometimes with a resolution and sometimes not. If you stick around until the end of the credits, though, you’ll get to see a wedding scene that was filmed and added to the movie after Fox Searchlight won a bidding war. Some may view “Napoleon Dynamite” as the equivalent of a 95-minute “Saturday Night Live” sketch, and they’d pretty much be right. How much that appeals to you depends on whether or not you want your movies to come in tidy little packages.

This DVD release offers a double-sided disc with the full screen (boo!) version on one side and the widescreen image on the other. While the commentary with director/co-write Jared Hess, actor John Heder, and producer Jeremy Coon is on both sides, the other extras are spread across the two. Unfortunately, the commentary is the worst of the bunch, with some dead air and only a few interesting stories to tell. The rest of it deals with the technical aspects of making the film and the inspiration for it, which unsurprisingly had a lot to do with the Hess brothers’ childhoods. Maybe I just don’t like commentaries. Gosh!

The three also recorded commentary tracks for the DVD’s deleted scenes and for “Peluca,” the nine-minute student film that was made for $500 and became the springboard for the full movie. It’s rough around the edges, of course, but you can see the faint glimmer of what became the full feature. The same can be said of the four deleted scenes, which also offer so-so commentary but do provide some big laughs. One of them extends a scene already in the film—I can see why they trimmed it—while the others are full of good material that would have been right at home in the movie.

The last extra of any note is “Wedding of the Century,” a four-minute micro-featurette that gives us a quick look at the making of the final wedding scene. It’s a shame that the full screen version of the film couldn’t be bumped for a nice documentary.

A stills gallery, which spends 40 minutes displaying pictures on the screen instead of allowing you to page through them at your own speed, and a few trailers for other movies, as well as seven MTV-produced promos for this film, round out the disc. Given the movie’s cult hit status, I hope Fox decides to revisit it sometime and throw in a good documentary.

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