(Publication date:  Sept. 17, 2004)


Sometimes you have a great experience at a movie, but the problem starts after you get home.
Someone asks, “Well, did you like it?” You answer yes. Your inquisitor asks why, and you stare
into space, utterly unable to think of an answer. After about five minutes of silence, you give up
and go get pizza.

Which brings to mind
Napoleon Dynamite. The sleeper hit of the summer, this film opened in
June and was still around in September. Word-of-mouth among Parker’s pals at Albany Middle
School was strong. So Labor Day weekend, Parker lobbied to go. Time was, I would decide
what we were going to see, and that was that. But at some point, when I wasn’t looking, Parker
started having opinions, and he was expressing one now. So I caved.

In this one, Jon Heder plays the title role. In real life, he’s a student at Brigham Young University
majoring in 3-D animation, and that’s not a bad way to start trying to explain this movie. He
looks like the guy in your high school physics class who felt about sub-atomic particles the way
you felt about your hot date for Friday night. I figured “Dynamite” was what Napoleon simply
calls himself, sort of a pre-emptive strike against the japes of his classmates, most of whom
seem to feel, more or less accurately, that he looks like a pencil with clown hair. But no,
Dynamite is his real last name. Like almost everything else you wonder about in this movie,
there’s no explanation of how that could possibly be.

Set in Idaho, of all places, the story is a bricolage of Napoleon’s life in high school as he
slouches around, getting pushed into lockers by the bullies from the football team. There’s a
llama named Tina, a time-travel contraption off eBay, door-to-door breast-enhancer sales,
chicken farming with a big glass of raw eggs for lunch, and, looking like she still thinks there’s
a shot to sing with the Supremes, a woman named La Fawnduh, who climbs off the bus from
Detroit and, entirely in keeping with the inscrutable logic of this movie, actually wants to be
there. In Idaho. However much sense all of that makes to you, that’s about how much sense it
made to Parker and me, and this was after we’d seen the movie. But we piled back into the
sunlight on Shattuck Avenue laughing out loud. It was one of the funniest movies we’d seen all

We climbed into the familymobile for the short trip home up the Eastshore and talked about the
film. “I really liked it,” said Parker, “but I’m not sure what it was about. I mean, nothing
seemed to happen.” Time was, he would ask me what I thought about a movie, and whatever I
said would be gospel. But at some point, when I wasn’t looking, he started telling me what he
thought instead. I said to him that in the movies, sometimes stuff is happening and we don’t
really notice it. Also, in a good story something always changes, and this was a good story. “I
still don’t think much changed in this movie,” he replied, “but I liked it and for me, that’s good
enough.” I said I agreed with that last part. Time was, I wouldn’t have to support my positions.
But at some point, when I wasn’t looking, Parker started holding up his end of the debate.

“Change always happens,” I said, “but sometimes it’s subtle.” And sometimes, I thought as I
looked over at him, it happens right before our very eyes.

Life Is a Movie