Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 12, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Napoleon Dynamite and Posing As People
The Jersey Girl DVD ads are cute. Kevin Smith comes onscreen, shows
us a picture of his wife, and sayd, "A guy who looks like me only gets a girl who
looks like this if he has plenty of bling bling." (In this context, apparently this
"So help a fat guy out," he says. "Buy Jersey Girl."
Now, being a fat guy myself, I'm all in favor of the fat guy getting the girl
-- even when he's a really rich fat guy whom I would normally resent deeply.
But if the price of the fat guy's romantic success is me watching Ben
Affleck playing somebody named "Ollie Trinke," then forget it. If Kevin Smith
wants romantic success, let him ask Hugh Grant for a lesson or two. I'm not
I wasn't going to see Napoleon Dynamite. When the first promo popped
up on a movie screen several months ago, it looked to me like somebody's sad
little homemade video designed to make fun of people who are clumsy or
The title character, desperately in need of orthodontia and a clothing and
hair makeover, carried nerdiness so far that it seemed cruel to laugh.
Especially because the actor's expressionless, nearly monotonous
delivery seemed to be modeled on someone suffering from Asperger's
Syndrome, a borderline autistic condition that makes it difficult for its victims
to show normal emotions and to make correct judgments about what is socially
But then I started hearing from people whose opinions I usually respect
that the movie was, in fact, truly funny and wonderful. I was skeptical in the
extreme. Finally, though, not quite kicking or screaming but utterly without
hope, I tagged along with my daughter, her roommate, and a friend, who had
already seen and loved it, to catch a matinee.
I was not wrong. But neither were they.
Napoleon Dynamite is not Revenge of the Nerds set in an Idaho high
school. And it is not cruel, in the sense of standing outside someone's
unfortunate life and laughing at him.
Instead, we are forced inside his sad, sad life, and the laughs seem to be
mostly rueful ones, sympathetic ones. We're not laughing with Napoleon. He's
not laughing. His life is very serious to him, his pain is real, and when he
lashes out in frustration, we wonder that it took him so long. The audience
laughs in an "Oh, no, not again" kind of way.
Except me. I could hardly laugh at all. I'm afraid I identify with
characters like this so completely that it becomes almost unbearable to watch.
At the very moments when people were laughing the most, I found myself with
tears in my eyes, aching for people in so much pain.
In some ways, this movie is almost a documentary. The spread-out
landscape, the drab architecture, the sense of isolation -- this is eastern Idaho
the way it looks to people who live there.
And it's definitely not a Beverly Hills high school comedy, where it's all
about plastic rich kids persecuting the poor or nonconforming. Everybody in
town is just getting by.
The pretty and popular girl who seems destined to win the class election
works after school at the checkout counter of a store. She has a job. If the
person at the pinnacle of the social pyramid needs to work to have spending
money, we know we're not in the usual high school comedy.
A truly shocking moment, to the contemporary film-goer, is when
Napoleon asks one of the popular girls to be his date to a dance. She is
appalled -- as any rational teenage girl who did not know him at all would be.
But -- and this is the shocking part -- her mother, believing that Napoleon is
mentally challenged, requires her daughter to accept his invitation.
When did you last see a teen comedy in which parents actually expect
their children to make morally generous choices? In the real world, that's what
good parents do; but on Planet Movie, teen flicks show parents only to mock
them for being utterly ineffectual.
There are a lot of things arguably wrong with this film. The older brother
is played so effeminately and repulsively that when his online romance finally
meets him, it's hard to believe she would actually find him acceptable. Both of
Napoleon's friends are almost as flat-affect as he is -- which is simply not true
of shy kids in high school, who are as animated as anyone when they're with
It's unfortunate that the actor playing Uncle Rico is unable to match the
honest performances of the other actors. He tries too hard to be funny, and
the result is usually the opposite.
The good things, however, outweigh the bad. I can't promise you a
screamingly funny laff riot. But I can promise you a story about an inept
young man and his two friends who muddle through and, quite accidentally,
achieve something rather fine.
And even if the film were worse than it is, it would still be worth it to see
the well-earned climax at the election assembly.
Just in case you're going to be in LA during the next few weeks, on
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through October 16th, you can stop in at
the Whitefire Theatre at 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks to see Posing
It's a two-hour show including three one-act plays based on short stories
I wrote back in the late 70s and early 80s ("Clap Hands and Sing," "Lifeloop,"
and "Sepulchre of Songs"). I did not write the plays -- they were adapted by
three talented young writer/actors, two of whom also play leading roles in their
I did, however, direct the plays, and was continually astonished by the
excellence of the talent pool in Los Angeles. So many young actors -- and older
ones, for that matter! -- are still undiscovered by the movies. Yet, eager to
work and with excellent skills, they make directors look better than they
Eventually these plays will be published and available for university,
high school, and community theater productions. But this is the world
premiere production, and I can't imagine that it could ever have a better cast.
Of course, theatre-goers in Greensboro are used to attending my plays
for free. In Los Angeles, it doesn't work that way. But the $20 ticket price is
still low, for Equity-waiver theatre. And the chairs are softer.
And after spending a month in Los Angeles while directing Posing As
People, I finally had to break down and find good places to eat in the valley.
Usually I spend all my time on the west side and in Santa Monica and Marina
Del Rey and Malibu -- because that's where the LA climate is like heaven. In
the valley, it's more like ... Phoenix. But if, as I was, you're trapped in the
valley and want to know where to get a good meal ...
Jerry's Deli on the east end of Ventura Blvd. is open all night. A
breakfast-anytime kind of place, it has great burgers and flapjacks and if they
don't know how to make a milkshake, I won't hold it against them. Jerry's is a
chain that brings late-night dining to several other locations in Southern
California -- and in a town that closes up about as early as Greensboro, it's
nice that there's one place you can get a good meal when you finish painting a
stage set at two in the morning.
On the other end of the continuum, there's a lovely French restaurant
called Le Petit Bistro only two and a half short blocks from the Whitefire
Theatre. It was recommended to me by a good friend, and I have to agree --
my pear-with-goat-cheese-crostini salad and halibut entree were wonderful, yet
everyone else was looking at me with pity because their food was even better.
For me, though, the highlight was a pepper spread for the pre-dinner
bread. It was so hot it made me think I'd stumbled into a kill-the-gringos
Mexican diner, but once I got the top of my head screwed back on, it was