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Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

A box-office hit Japan missed

Napoleon Dynamite

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jared Hess
Running time: 82 minutes
Language: English
Available on DVD
[See Japan Times movie listings]

You'd think that a U.S.-indie comedy, one made for a mere $400,000 that went on to make a staggering $45 million at the box office, one that opened on six screens and went on to 1,027 -- you'd think that sort of film would justifiably be called a hit. And you'd think that such a hit, also one of 2004's critical faves, would get a proper release in Japan.

News photo
Low-budget "Napoleon Dynamite" was a big hit in the U.S. but Japan didn't get a chance to see it on the big screen.

But you'd be wrong.

"Napoleon Dynamite," the debut feature by 26-year-old director Jared Hess and a hilariously bizarre portrait of the American Nerd, went straight to DVD in the Japanese market, a fate usually reserved for far schlockier fare. Then again, watching "Walk the Line" last week -- the Johnny Cash bio-pic that has Joaquin Phoenix tipped for a possible Oscar -- I recalled how its director, James Mangold, saw his excellent indie debut, "Heavy," go straight to video. So mistakes are made.

Set in and around a Nowhere, Idaho high school, "Napoleon Dynamite" follows the travails of its title character, played in an iconic, career-defining performance by Jon Heder. With scrambled hair and a permanent slack-jawed gawk, topped-off by a squinty-eyed scowl, Napoleon is one of those truculent, self-defeating geeks that are hard to like -- comparisons to Dawn Wiener in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" are hard to resist.

"Dollhouse" was a far darker film, though, while "Napoleon" is played strictly for quirky laughs, whether it's the laboriously created and horrendously ugly portrait Napoleon draws of his prom date, or his older brother Kip's addiction to online chat rooms. Best of all is Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), an ex-high school quarterback who's still obsessed with his glory year of 1982. When he buys a "time-travel machine" on the Net, Napoleon tries it out and gets electrocuted. Typical of this film, the joke comes less from his slapsticky shock than when you realize he totally expected it to work.

Fans of Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson or even David Lynch in his sillier moments, will warm to this deadpan, hold-for-a-second-and-cut style. And all those directors do well enough in Japan that, again, it's hard to see why this wasn't released.

20th Century Fox was the distributor, and although they do plenty of blockbusters, they've also managed to push minor films as offbeat as "Waking Life." When asked, the company's official reply was that they were too busy this year with major releases like "Star Wars: Episode III," " Fantastic Four" and "Robots" to focus on this smaller film. That doesn't wash, though, since "Napoleon Dynamite" was a 2004 film, and anyway, Japanese distributors are generally willing to delay a release for months, even years, if they so require.

Some critics, Japanese included, have suggested that the specifics of the film's humor were too particularly American to play here. That notion would rule out a lot of indie films, though, like "The Virgin Suicides" or "Ghost World" or "Happiness," that all had decent openings in Tokyo. A more likely scenario is that the price-tag for a surprise $45-million hit was too high for the smaller, art-house theaters that would have gone for it here.

As is, the film comes out on DVD with the title "Bus Otoko, "a clear attempt to ride the trendy success of the local otaku love story, "Densha Otoko." The packaging is even a clear steal from "Densha Otoko," right down to the text-message iconography across the top. Whether that will help or hurt this film remains to be seen, but for those looking for the perfect gift to send to hip friends stateside this Christmas, be on the lookout for the Napoleon Dynamite action figures being issued by Takara. Comes complete with moon boots and bad hair.

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