When the only vague parallel you can draw is Rushmore, you know to throw the rulebook out the window. And so you should with Jared Hess' debut, which may never quite scale the consistent heights of Wes Anderson's signature movie, but often borders on its brilliance.
As in Rushmore, Napoleon's hero is a high-school loner of such social spasticity that warming to him takes some serious effort. Like Rushmore, it too is driven by a hatful of the most eccentric characters this side of an early John Waters. Unlike Rushmore, it does have some narrative problems towards the end. But then Rushmore never had a scene where a cow gets shotgunned in the face in front of a busload of children, so it's possibly a fair trade.
This is as much a meet-and-greet as a movie, but as we meander about Napoleon's hicksville hometown being introduced to its inhabitants, it's an absolute blast. Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), permanently stuck in 1982, is a mini-marvel, constantly filming himself chucking his American football about the garden in his quest for the perfect throwing action; while Pedro (Efren Ramirez), Napoleon's cake-baking best bud, and Deb (Tina Majorino), the object of their affections, both bristle with loveably astute character tics.
An opening split between surrealism and slapstick (Napoleon getting hit in the kisser with a raw steak is one of the funniest moments of 2004) stumbles sadly at the hour mark, struggling to find its characters anything interesting to do and settling into prom-night cliché. That it's managed to rise above this disappointing climax to become both a Sundance and mainstream success - - $42 million at the US box office - - is completely down to its hero.
Jon Heder's performance is perfect, not to mention uncannily convincing. Indeed, the young actor involuntarily triggered a recent bidding war between Hollywood agents that's only just been resolved, after much blood, sweat and tears. In case you're wondering, it was Will Ferrell's agent who finally won the battle. Which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Uneven towards the end, but packed with enough ingenuity and adorably insane characters to paper over the cracks. A new cult hero is born.