It says something about me that the last three movies I’ve seen are Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Spiderman 2 and Napoleon Dynamite. But I think it also says something about what’s going on in American cinema today. I know it’s a stretch to argue that these films represent three versions of the same story, but when you see them consecutively over several days as I just have, they seem to illuminate three aspects of a common and comforting archetype. They all involve characters who arouse our pity and enlist our sympathies by living unapologetically in fantasy worlds. They’re all about intractably dedicated, self-serious geeks.
Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) doesn’t notice his own erection until it’s pointed out to him; Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has palms that projectile-spray sticky goo everywhere, and Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), with his weak chin and strong name (unwittingly copped by the director from Elvis Costello), is just a gangly, mouth-breathing oaf. And that’s just for starters!
Ferrell’s over-coifed, ludicrously cocky newscaster, who always signs off with an empty yet unctuous “You stay classy, San Diego,” has the tragic flaw of reading aloud whatever’s written on his teleprompter. Maguire, lonely and depressed, flounders through college, work and relationships, failing them all because his anonymous superhero life has worn him out. And Heder, when not doodling imagined mythical animals in his notebook, playing tetherball alone or performing treacly pop songs in sign-language with the “Happy Hands Club,” finds himself feeding his grandmother’s llama or getting thrashed by jocks.
The conflict each film must resolve has to do with how these protagonists will achieve self-respect. Their wars with ungainliness are what make them stars and make us root for them. (Even Spiderman’s battle with a super-villain is made to seem secondary to his own internal battle.)
The films have weaknesses, to be sure. There is a premium in every case on heightened unreality, a hazy combination of playful exaggeration and nostalgia, and parody that is presumed to pass for satire. Tone slips periodically into outright camp in all three films. There are plot holes and platitudinous lessons about tolerance, solidarity, and the expression and sacrifice of self. But we’ve tended to give them all a pass on these points, because the overall spirit of their enterprise seems laudable. It says: You go, geeks!
Does it really spoil anything if I tell you that Maguire saves the day? That, in the end, he gets Kirsten Dunst to ditch her perfect fiancé at the altar for him? That Heder’s climactic dance number wins over an auditorium full of the high schoolers who’ve previously tormented him? That Ferrell’s expulsion from his cherished prime-time spotlight is only temporary? The real satisfaction comes from recognizing the archetype and authenticating it.
All three actors exude such insouciance in their roles as misfits it’s almost scary. When I got a long glimpse of Heder’s hidden, heavy-lidded eyes and wondered, “Is he…awake?” I remembered wondering almost the same thing when confronted with Maguire’s glassy, melancholic stare. All part of the act, of course.
As a geek, I should be thrilled to see that filmmakers still trust this kind of material, but yet I’m unsettled. Each of these movies looked good at the outset, and came highly recommended by somebody or other, but each left me with an unexpected feeling of ambivalence. I found each one quite likable; the aforementioned problems seemed forgivable, and yet I was less than satisfied. Why could that be?
For one thing, these are pretty male movies. As much as they involve women and nod to their concerns (viz. the fun, Annie Get Your Gun-esque feminism of Anchorman; Dunst’s remarkably self-actualized handling of her damsel-in-distress duties in Spiderman 2; the calibrated sensitivity and patience of Napoleon’s love interest, played by Tina Majorino), these films remain, as you recall, fantasy worlds, and they’re male fantasies. If I didn’t know better, I might figure the whole movie business was run by a bunch of adolescent guys.
Maybe it’s the increasingly easy acceptance of geek chic in today’s movie culture. There’s a kind of feigned, over-cultivated nerddom en vogue now, and it’s starting to seem as alienating as the stiflingly mainstream milieus that movies like these bravely broke apart from in the first place. It’s getting hard to tell the difference between real, human affection for so-called “quirky” characters and the affectation of quirkiness.
In that regard, Napoleon Dynamite is the most striking of this (admittedly random) group. A blogger at Sundance called it an instant classic. While this is true to an extent, I would offer that the film may be an instant classic in the way that instant coffee is coffee.
If Napoleon Dynamite isn’t quite greater than the sum of its parts, it’s not alone. But together with its unlikely kin, Spiderman 2 and Anchorman, Napoleon Dynamite offers a reminder that going to the movies remains a reliable way of geeking out.