Film: Napoleon Dynamite and the limitations of urban(e) critics

Most of the “Napoleon Dynamite” reviews I have read mentioned that the film doesn’t have a strong plot. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the capsule headline for Carla Meyer’s San Francisco Chronicle review: “There’s no cohesive story.”

However, when I read the full review, I did find it interesting that Meyer accuses Jared and Jerusha Hess, the film’s writers, of trying to make an ’80s period piece a la John Hughes.

Her specific objections:

1. “The comic setups are rather geek-movie conventional for a picture that keeps trying to announce its differentness. ‘Napoleon’ is unique only if you gauge uniqueness by an inability to tell the era in which a film is set.”

2. “Napoleon’s Idaho high school classmates seem to be living in 2004, but they slow-dance to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.'”

3. “The filmmakers want to evoke the ‘Sixteen Candles’ era of geekdom without committing to a period movie or acknowledging what’s happened in the intervening years. Napoleon’s three-piece, 1970s thrift-store suit was unfashionable in 1984, but today it looks like something a San Francisco hipster might wear.” (Carla Meyer. “‘Napoleon’ falls too much in love with its own nerdiness.” San Francisco Chronicle: June 18, 2004.)

It would seem Meyer doesn’t know rural Idaho very well. Sure her reactions are valid (for her). And I’m sure they reflect the likely reactions of some of her readers. But with this review Meyer proves something that I’m sure Motley Vision readers may have already suspected — there are limitations to being an urban(e) critic.

4 thoughts on “Film: Napoleon Dynamite and the limitations of urban(e) critics”

  1. I’ve not seen the film, but I did note that a lot of the complaints were more or less about not taking the characters as seriously as they might have. But I do agree that there is often “provincialism” among film reviewers who don’t realize the diversity in America. What’s worse they often only notice either “more of the same big city” or “really different.” Anything between these two gets them very confused.

    I was rather shocked, BTW, as Ebert’s rather flaming review of the film.

  2. Ebert’s review surprised me as well.

    I’m interested to see how the Bloggernacle reacts to the film itself. As you note, quite a few critics thought the film was mean-spirited — that is was making fun of the characters just to make fun of them. I wonder if Mormons who know the scene a little better will find that the pay-off moments work better for them and that the fun-making is more funny because the cultural aspects of the film have greater resonance.

    I probably won’t see it in the theatre [small child = only watch films on dvd], but if anyone has a review they’d like me to post here, I’d be happy to do so.

  3. I was asked to give my comments on this blog entry, and being one to do as I am told, particularly by strangers, I am dutifully offering these remarks.

    I agree with the blogger that Carla Meyer’s (and others’) reviews of the film reflect a lack of awareness of America between the two coasts. Meyer in particular misses the point of the film, which isn’t to evoke any kind of “Sixteen Candles”-esque nostalgia, but to show a real place that really is sorta backwards. I remarked in my own review ( that the film is set in a town “where culture, fashion and mustaches stopped developing in the 1970s, with the exception of some girls’ hairstyles, which managed to reach the mid-’80s.” Musical tastes seem to have progressed that far, too. The point is, the town is out-of-touch and backwards.

    I think the reason many critics are writing this way is that they see the film as making fun of these types of people (which it is), and they don’t want to seem to support that sort of mockery. It’s very P.C.: If we give the film good reviews, it will sound like we’re endorsing the ridicule of dorky people! People will think we’re snotty, West Coast/East Coast film critics who think we’re better than middle-America types, and to prove we’re not like that, we’re gonna come down hard on movies that make fun of middle-America types.

    Of course it’s all bogus, because many of these critics probably DO think they’re better than middle-America types, and they probably ARE better than them. I know I am. The film wants us to laugh at some absurd characters. So why not laugh?

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