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Aaagh! An X-box, an X-box, My kingdom for an X-box!

Napoleon Dynamite
(PG, 86 min.)
Selected theaters

A Cinderella Story
(PG, 97 min.)
Wide release

Thursday, July 15, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Napoleon Dynamite/A Cinderella Story

There are movies that exploit the dork and there are movies where the dork wins in the end--and somewhere between them is Napoleon Dynamite, the feature-length debut by Idaho-born writer-director Jared Hess.

Driving this plotless flick is 26-year-old Jon Heder, who, as the title character, is a geek for the ages. Here's a role dependent on physical expressions and profanity-free one-liners, and yet the young actor pulls back on the charisma for the sake of deadpan misanthropy. As a result, there's not much to like about Napoleon--he's arrogant, dishonest, socially inept, hyper-defensive and downright rude. But in a movie where everyone's a loser, he becomes our de facto hero. And Hess and Heder wisely make sure we're laughing with Napoleon as much as at him.

In one scene, we see him getting smacked in the face by a piece of steak. In another, as he's asked to vote the cheerleader into office and wear her class presidency campaign pin, he accepts, only to chuck the pin down the hallway. Despite his faults, Napoleon eventually exudes a certain geek chic if only because he's fiercely shameless--which only breeds more hilarity.

Beyond the laughs, however, there's not much of a payoff. The film doesn't go anywhere; thanks to the established clichés of nerd cinema, Hess must worry more about what to avoid, as opposed to what he must work toward. The supporting cast is nearly as hilarious as Napoleon himself, but we don't care about them--with the possible exception of new student Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the one character Napoleon reaches out to in earnest.

And sometimes, Hess must go a long way for a joke (see almost every scene with opportunist Uncle Rico, played spot-on by Jon Gries) that isn't worth the work. In fact, if Heder wasn't such a revelation here, you could say the same thing about the entire film.--Mike Prevatt

Glass slippage

A Cinderella Story makes so many good choices that you wish you could like it more than you do.

Mark Rosman's film updates the children's tale in some clever ways. Our heroine, Samantha Montgomery (the ever-perky Hilary Duff), meets her Prince Charming, Austin Ames (the ever-posing Chad Michael Murray), over the Internet.

Her mean stepmom, Fiona (the ever-self-effacing Jennifer Coolidge) makes Sam work at her diner so that Fiona can lounge at the pool and get Botox treatments.

The "fairy godmother" is Sam's co-worker Rhonda (the always underused Regina King) who gives great advice. The "ball" is a Halloween high school dance. The midnight deadline is the hour Fiona will be returning to the diner, where she expects to find Sam working. The article left behind at the dance is a cell phone.

There's a lot of talk about believing in yourself no matter what anyone else thinks, which is writer Leigh Dunlap's way of saying to the tweens that Prince Charming is not the one who's going to make you content.

And when the lovers drive off to Princeton together, Sam tells the audience she's happy--but adds, "For now. After all, I'm only a freshman."

Not bad. There's a general feeling of goodwill from Rosman's lighthearted direction. But there are too many moments when the needed good lines just aren't there. The cast is charming, but unable to redeem a screenplay that clearly needed a few more drafts.

Interesting, too, that updates don't include a new take on evil stepmothers. With so many kids now living in divorced households, is it still fair game for "wholesome" fairy tales to suggest that stepparents are not likely to love their new spouse's children?--Anthony De Valle

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