A while back I read in a friend's online journal that she was excited about going to the local arthouse theater and seeing a double bill of Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite, both of which she'd already seen but liked enough to see again. So I though I would see if these films were, as the kids say, "all that."

Napoleon Dynamite isn't bad. The most interesting thing about it is that it is set in and was actually filmed in Preston, Idaho, a short hop over the Utah border. Places like this have exploded in population over the past few years, but thus far they have yet to make much of a dent in pop culture. You don't see too many movies and TV shows set in places where the population is overwhelmingly Mormon, where kids are subjected firsthand to the horror of the livestock industry and compete in Future Farmers of America competitions, and where people eat things straight out of Lileks's Gallery of Regrettable Food. An observant take on an unusual setting automatically makes a story a lot more worthwhile; if this movie had been set in New York my interest would have been close to nil.

For the rest of it isn't especially great. Napoleon Dynamite is a parade of freaks-n-geeks, sometimes amusing but often flat. Its chief virtue is that, again, it's surprisingly observant; the filmmakers know nerds from real life, not just from other movies. They've given their protagonist, not horn-rims or coke-bottle specs, but much nerdier squarish aviator glasses; they know what the notebook-paper drawings of guys like this look like; they're intimately familiar with the manifold uses of the inappropriately triumphant fist-pump. (I wince to recall that CBS has footage of me at age twelve making Napoleon's fist-pumps look relatively suave.) Lines such as "I made like infinity of those at scout camp" wouldn't be funny if not for the fact that they're just so authentic.

Anyway, this is a trifle, and tries to play it both ways wanting us to both laugh at the dorks and pull for them, but all in all it was okay.

Garden State was not. This movie got almost uniformly good reviews, and I have no idea what the critics saw in it. It actively annoyed me and I shut it off after half an hour.

In that half hour the protagonist finds out that his mother has died, flies home to New Jersey, and then in scene after scene encounters people he grew up with, each more loathsome than the last. None of these scenes produces any plot threads of note. I guess we're just supposed to take in the ambiance. It's really bad ambiance. There's a long sequence set at a party that would have had me heading for the exit after about fifteen seconds, and after sitting through it all I had no further insight into the characters and nothing had happened. Then the movie went back to being quirky. Garden State tries really really hard to be quirky. There should be little superimposed boxes like on Pop-Up Video saying, "Look! Quirky! See how quirky!" Like, there's a bit where the guy wakes up and there's an armored knight wandering around in the kitchen. Turns out to be another old friend who now works at Medieval Times. Swell. The thing is, this sort of thing can work. The Big Lebowski was full of similar bits... but Lebowski managed to jump past quirky and into zany. It was full of manic energy. Garden State is tedious.

What made me finally shut it off was the protagonist's incredibly contrived meet-cute with the Natalie Portman character, in which she wanders over to help him make a dog stop humping his leg and then runs on at the mouth. I got the sense that I was supposed to find her to be a fascinating indie chyk and since she was played by a name actress I had to assume that she was going to be a major character for the rest of the movie. In other words, it threatened to become a quirky romantic comedy, perhaps with revelations of past quirky family drama, revolving around a bunch of characters all of whom I wanted to die.

I will say this for it, though. Garden State was so bad that it actually made me feel elated to turn it off. It was like when I dropped out of grad school. It was just so liberating to pull the trigger and free myself from a bad situation.

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