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Is it a wacky leap of faith?

'Napoleon Dynamite' is low on sex-crazed youths, violence and profanity but still aims directly at teens.

June 10, 2004|Peter McQuaid | Special to The Times

If "Napoleon Dynamite" doesn't turn out to be this summer's indie comedy sensation, it won't be for lack of trying. The story of the most hard-core high school nerd in Preston, Idaho, has everything going for it: a funny script, an engaging cast, the marketing muscle of Fox Searchlight, MTV and Paramount -- and a history. "Complete With Sundance Bidding War!" the ads might boast.

The title character is a friendless, cluelessly awkward teenager -- bullied at school, misunderstood at home by his grandmother and harassed by his older brother -- who never gets enough to eat. As he manages to gain a pal and attract the attention of a girl, they encounter increasingly off-kilter complications.

That's only a slice of the unlikely life of this oddity, more of which is revealed on an otherwise cliche L.A. summer afternoon, in a cliche location (News Cafe's Fox lot outpost), as director Jared Hess commits the most unpardonable cliche of answering his cellphone.

"I'm sorry," Hess says sincerely. "I thought it might be my wife." Hess, 24, co-wrote the film with his wife, Jerusha, who also designed the costumes.

Although Fox Searchlight bought the movie at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it began life as "Peluca," a short that screened at Slamdance, the alternate-universe Sundance, the year before. It's basically about the same character (also played by Jon Heder), but the title is the Spanish word for wig, which figures in a subplot.

The new incarnation is set in the filmmakers' real hometown, where it was also filmed. It hardly looks like it, but the movie was cast in Los Angeles.

Jared and Jerusha Hess met at Brigham Young University, from which Heder also graduated. As did Aaron Ruell, who plays Napoleon's cyber-geek older brother; producer-editor Jeremy Coon; and producer Chris Wyatt.

Back at Fox, to promote the film that opens Friday, Hess is joined by Heder and Efren Ramirez, who plays Napoleon's best friend.

As a result of his barely hinged portrayal of young Master Dynamite, Heder, 26, is now a neophyte Angeleno with representation at Creative Artists Agency who is waiting for his wife, Kristen, to join him in L.A.

Acknowledging their predictable increase in offers as a result of the film's popularity at Sundance and Searchlight's relentless pre-release screenings, Heder says, "I've always wanted to do animation and film. I wanted to get into the business, and I wanted to keep acting definitely after 'Napoleon' and even after 'Peluca' -- I was like, 'Hey, let's see what happens.' "

Ramirez, 25, seems similarly grounded. When he's not writing or acting, Ramirez throws raves under the name Nocturnal Rampage. A native Angeleno who attended Santa Monica College and Cal State L.A., he says he actually turned down a part in "The Alamo" because it conflicted with "Napoleon Dynamite."

As for the Hesses, they have decided to move with their son, Elliot, to a major metropolis, forsaking Preston for ... Salt Lake City. "I'm creatively influenced by Rocky Mountain Middle America," he says. "I'm a small-town guy."

This down-to-earthiness may be the core of the movie's appeal. It is alarmingly low on real violence, contains no horny adolescent gross-out subplots and only one use of profanity. All of which had absolutely nothing to do with Fox Searchlight's decision to acquire the film.

"We were at Sundance, and one of my execs came to me and said, 'You have to come with me right now! You have to see this movie,' " says Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice. "I saw it and laughed and laughed to the end. Everyone at the company loved it, and if we all love something, we'll find a way to get people to come and see it."

While Searchlight is skillful at marketing out-of-the-ordinary films such as "Bend It Like Beckham" and "28 Days Later," Rice thinks he's got something so special he was willing to part with 50% of the movie so it could benefit from MTV's particular expertise. MTV's Viacom sibling Paramount will release it overseas.

After Sundance, MTV Films, which had also bid on the film, expressed an interest in helping Searchlight market it.

"It has a unique point of view," says Van Toffler, president of MTV. "Young filmmakers, young actors.... We felt it would appeal to an MTV demographic."

Sort of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" meets "The Real World" with a bit of "Election" thrown in, but nicer.

"MTV programs to a young audience, they do it all day long," Searchlight's Rice says. "The big thing that they bring is 19 million cable subscribers, and we've been working hard to come up with fun and inventive stuff that brings Napoleon to them in a cool way."

"Other studios tend to take footage and highlight it," Toffler explains. "We tend to get more into the characters or issues in the movie that relate specifically to our audience. We'll do things like stories on the Web, or have him review other movies in character, to give our audience an idea of this weird, dynamic character Napoleon Dynamite."

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