I saw the trailer for Jared Hess’s new film Gentlemen Broncos, and it got me thinking about Napoleon Dynamite and what made that such a brilliant film, and how it managed to change the culture of this country.
For me it is that it’s hard to say what the film is “about”. It’s kind of a romance; there’s the pursuit of the girls by each of the male leads. It’s kind of a coming of age; you get a sense that Napoleon has lost a certain amount of his innocence, being a part of something greater than himself (the election). It’s kind of a family comedy; the grandmother’s injury and Uncle Rico’s injection into this small insular unit provides a major component of the film’s first plot point. It’s also kind of a character study, in that what it’s really about is these characters whom are shocking in there uniqueness in American cinema, yet who are all intimately familiar to us. It’s kind of all of these things and each of them, but to call them the film’s “aboutness” short-changes the richness of the (dare I say it) comedic tapestry.
What I especially love about the film, and what I think America secretly loved, was that the filmmakers seemed to have some sense that a modern American audience would be hungrily trying to determine what the film was “about”, and the filmmakers have a lot of fun misdirecting us and keeping us guessing about this, sometimes into the third or fourth viewing.
The first part of the movie, where we’re introduced to Napoleon and his high school problems, to his weird family and to the unsettlingly peaceful open spaces of Idaho, America thinks, “Ah, a rural high school comedy, like Can’t Hardly Wait or The Breakfast Club or Superbad (which doesn’t exist yet). They’ll be concerns about virginity and alcohol. They’ll be a dance or party of some sort that we’ll be expected to believe is the most important event in the universe, and this goofy underdog will share a surprisingly un-awkward kiss with sidewise ponytail girl who will become super hot.”
And then Pedro comes along, and America thinks, “Oh, buddies versus bullies, with the buddies’ secret weapon: Rex Kwon Do!”.
Then grandma is hurt while getting her groove back, and we’re introduced to Uncle Rico, who is instantly hilarious (although we don’t really know why). And since he draws our consciousness so intensely, America thinks, “Oh, this is Uncle Buck, told from the kids’ perspective. Rico will embarrass the hell out of everyone, but the second plot point will involve a serious emergency happening to one of the kids, like Kip is hit by a car, or Napoleon realizes he can’t dance just before the annual Homecoming Hop. And then Uncle Rico will step up and show us the power of family, if we can all just work together. Rico’s final solution to the problem will somehow involve him throwing something like a football, and his heart will be healed as well.”
And then Rico accidentally touched Kip’s knee, and America briefly though “Finally! A comedy about molestation!”, but sadly, it was not to be. But we were thrown off the scent. Besides, Kip’s like thirty years old.
The adventures with the money-making schemes, the Tupperware and the chickens and the boob pills, they also threaten to consume the aboutness. They certainly consume our attention and make us forget about the other candidates discussed above. There’s even a moment where Uncle Rico starts talking about Deb’s boobs, and America got all excited about pedophilia, but it never pops back up again.
I could go on and on like this, listing subplot after mini-scene, feint after misdirection, in other words, candidate aboutnesses, each capable of providing sufficient fuel for an entire movie on their own. And the brilliance of the Hess’ was that they understood (at some level) that we’d be looking for things like this, that modern audiences are used to big clues about ‘what the movie is about’ early on in the film. But rather than give it to us, they thought they’d play some games with us first.
And America loved being played with.
You can see this same phenomena in American Beauty.