L. Neil Smith's
Number 351, January 22, 2006

"Down With Tolerance!"

The Sad, Impending Demise of Napoleon Dynamite
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

Would it be wrong to root against a man's career? Would it be wrong to consciously hope for someone—a living, breathing human being—to fail at whatever it is he's trying to do? What if you didn't know this man? What if you had no reason to root against him? What if you only hoped for his failure because you liked his work?

Would it be wrong?

Here's why I ask: A couple of weeks ago, I saw the trailer for an upcoming comedy called The Benchwarmers, about three grown men who go around the country playing Little League teams in baseball. Now, you probably don't need me to tell you this premise sounds awful. Personally, though, I'm open-minded and could easily give it a shot. The problem I have with this movie, however, and the reason I'll most likely avoid it, is its cast. The top two stars are former SNL buddies Rob Schneider and David Spade. And whenever Rob Schneider stars in a movie, it usually turns out to be crap.

Now, I'd be all right with that if all this was was another crappy Rob Schneider movie. I'd just chalk it up to the legendary SNL curse—in which former cast members either tragically die or star in movies produced by Adam Sandler—and leave it at that. But the problem is, this is more than just another crappy Rob Schneider movie. Because this movie also stars Jon Heder. And Jon Heder, in case you don't know, was the guy whose brilliant performance powered the title role of Napoleon Dynamite.

This is a problem for me. And it's a problem for anyone who thought Jon Heder had tons of potential. Rob Schneider represents the opposite of everything you want in a comedy. When he walks by flowers, he kills them. At best, The Benchwarmers figures to be mildly entertaining. But at worst, it figures to be another sad chapter in a series of Rob Schneider movies starting with "The" (such as The Animal and The Hot Chick). This doesn't bode well for Heder's career. And it doesn't bode well for Napoleon Dynamite's legacy.

This is a shame because Napoleon Dynamite is one of the early 21st century's most essential movies. It's an astonishing film, and I'm not afraid to say that—as trendy as saying it may be. I didn't like this movie the first time I saw it. I liked things about it, of course, but it just didn't seem so special. Over time, though, it began to sink in. Scenes would replay in my mind. I'd remember Pedro's priceless lack of expression. I'd hear Kip's whiny, undetermined voice. I'd think back on that scene where Lyle the farmer eats a sandwich and points into the distance, saying something so garbled and incomprehensible that, to date, I still don't know what he said (and don't want to). And I'd start to realize maybe there was something special about this movie after all. When I went back and watched it again (and again, and again), I realized, yep, there was. Now I'm hooked. Napoleon Dynamite's characters aren't just characters. They're people. And the more you watch them, the more you realize you know these people. Or hell, in high school, maybe you were these people. (I sure was.)

That's why this movie has been the "it"-movie of the last two years. That's why, wherever you go, you see people wearing "Vote For Pedro" t-shirts. This story of quirky, small town redemption is spot-on perfect. Wherever you're from, you probably know a Napoleon Dynamite. And whoever you are, you probably have a little Napoleon in you.

In many ways, Napoleon Dynamite is more than a movie at this point. It's a cultural milestone. A work of art. Which is why I suddenly find myself asking the questions posed at the top of this article. Is it wrong to root against a man's career? What if the only reason you're rooting against him is because you like his work?

As I sit here thinking about The Benchwarmers, I'm just as skeptical as I was when I first saw the trailer a couple of weeks ago. In Napoleon Dynamite, Heder played the ultimate high school idiot. In this one, he apparently plays some kind of retard in a bike helmet. The movie doesn't look funny, and Heder doesn't look funny in it. Perhaps I'll turn out to be wrong about that. I'd like that to be the case. But already it's clear the typecasting has begun. Even if The Benchwarmers ends up being a pleasant surprise, it seems inevitable now that Heder's career will eventually parody his role as Napoleon. Once that happens, it will become impossible to separate the actor from the character. I worry about this. It threatens to cheapen a very important movie (provided its own popularity doesn't cheapen it first).

That said, I find myself asking: Should I root against Jon Heder's success as an actor? Would it be wrong to believe that, for Napoleon to live, his career must die? I mean, the only sure way to prevent Heder from making crappy, Rob Schneider-style movies is to stop him from making movies, period—isn't it? I feel bad saying that, don't get me wrong. He technically doesn't deserve to be scorned yet, so this is sort of a preemptive strike. But Napoleon Dynamite truly is a special movie. It's important to me and to a lot of other people. If Heder falls into a string of lousy post-Napoleon roles, I can't help but think it'll tarnish his first and finest hour. I really don't want that to happen. Perhaps I have no right to feel this way. Perhaps I'm getting awfully territorial about a simple comedy film. But that's just the way I feel about this thing. That Benchwarmers trailer left a taste in my mouth like burnt popcorn. I don't want this taste to overshadow Heder's work as Napoleon.

Of course, the overriding question here—Would it be wrong to root against a man's career?—would be easier to answer if that man were a career politician or a career hit man. To my knowledge, Jon Heder is neither of these things. He's just an artist, attempting to make a career from his art. But I think this dilemma speaks to a larger problem within the realm of art and pop culture consumption. Napoleon Dynamite was an underdog film about an underdog person. But the film, like its character, isn't really an underdog anymore. In the end, it became a big hit. And like any big hit, it figures to jump the proverbial shark at some point down the road. That's just what big hits do. They capture something special, and people like it, so the folks involved spend the next few years killing the whole concept in an effort to capture that spark again.

I remember a couple of years ago, I couldn't imagine not wanting to see every movie that starred the so-called "Frat Pack" of Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Owen Wilson. I still think these guys are funny, of course, but I'm kind of tired of seeing them together all the time. Tragedies like Dodgeball don't have to happen, if only these guys would branch out more. The same goes for a lot of the bands I've listened to over the years. Every now and then, a new artist will show up with a fresh, new sound. People will spend the next two years desperately waiting for a second album as good as the first. And then, when it comes out, it'll sound exactly the same. But it won't sound inspired. And no one will care for that band anymore.

That's what appears to be happening to Jon Heder. Obviously, I don't expect every movie this guy stars in to be as good—or as special—as Napoleon Dynamite. I don't think it's possible to indulge in the arts without turning out a piece of garbage every now and then. I think I've proven this myself over the years. Sometimes I write stuff that blows my own mind. Other times I turn in an article that makes me want to vomit all over my writing career. I wouldn't like it if someone told me to stop writing because my best work was already behind me, so I'm willing to give Jon Heder some slack. In answer to the question I posed up top, no, I don't think it's wrong to root against a man's career; but, in fairness to Heder, he hasn't quite earned his jeers yet. But for the sake of all those Napoleon Dynamite fans out there, I hope and pray Hollywood offers him the kinds of roles that'll let him branch out more. And I hope and pray that he'll accept only those sorts of roles.

Maybe the industry just doesn't understand this guy's genius yet. Or maybe it'll turn out he's a remarkably limited actor. I don't know. And time will tell. I just hope we can find out without marring a very special movie.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. He can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.

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