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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 means "money.")

"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 helping.


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 socially awkward.

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 appropriate.

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 their friends.

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 As People.

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 own shows.

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 deserve.

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. (They thought.)

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 delicious.

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