Napoleon Dynamite is an excellent example of what Americans love about the grass-roots success story: a small production and modest budget results in a popular sensation that surges word-of-mouth across the country. One of the most consistent comments mentioned by reviewers and commentators is that this understated little film resonates.
Napoleon Dynamite has a lot of strengths--great characters, a masterfully subtle comedic impulse, and dialogue that will rattle from the lips of teenagers and college students for years to come ("Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner!"). But the enduring strength of this film is that it resonates with a world barely remembered and rarely celebrated by thousands of those who were once high school students. While no one (at least at my high school) was quite like Napoleon, in his one character we see the myriad traits of many who stood on the fringes of the accepted social cliques. In our developmental years, we may have even possessed some of his traits, long forgotten since the days of gym class and cafeteria food. The film oozes features from this forgotten life, and even those who do not remember being "nerds" smile at the memory of a good friend who just might have been one.
That is what sets this film apart as unique. As Hollywood's influence has grown in the lives of Americans, many films echo more than they resonate. That is, they echo themes from an American media culture rather than resonating with themes from an actually lived American experience.
I suggest that this is a condition and symptom of a self-conscious postmodernism in the today's media culture. With a concern for toleration and a overblown fear of offending any minority interest, there seems to be an idea that we cannot claim shared experience without offending or alienating those who did not participate in that experience. Thus, rather than attempting to find common experience upon which to forge new media, instead the media culture has to find commonality in the only thing it knows to be safe: its own media culture.
Thus, we have today's movie trends. If you look at the movies of 2004, you will see a huge number of sequels (Bourne Supremacy, Blade Trinity, Meet the Fokkers, Ocean's Twelve, Shrek 2, Spiderman 2, the Whole Ten Yards, Chronicles of Riddick, Princess Diaries 2, Bridget Jones 2, Scooby Doo 2, Harry Potter/Azkaban, Kill Bill 2), spin-off's (Catwoman, Van Helsing), re-makes (The Manchurian Candidate, Flight of the Phoenix, Stepford Wives, A Cinderella Story), book or TV conversions (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Polar Express, Starsky and Hutch, Vanity Fair, Hellboy, Garfield, Fat Albert, the Punisher) and historical adaptations (Troy, Alexander, Ray, The Aviator, The Alamo). All of these films have their roots in a common media culture and represent the vast bulk of the movie entertainment in 2004.
For notable films of 2004 that are somehow unique, we are left with The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Spanglish, The Village, Anchorman, Dodgeball, Hidalgo, and the Incredibles. Even among these, Sky Captain and the Incredibles drew heavily on media culture--they resembled works of nostalgia more so than original works in their own right.
If Hollywood is to continue to hold the attention of the American public, it will need to take a page from the Dynamite playbook: rather than chasing the echoes of its own voice around the picture studio, it will need to turn its eyes outward to new horizons of the American experience, however varied and divided it might appear to be. We'll be waiting.