If you see only one set of opening credits this year, make it the credits of Napoleon Dynamite. If you want to stay for the film, go ahead, but you've already seen the best of what the movie has to offer --- especially if you've seen the trailer, which doesn't show the best parts so much as a representative sampling of a very limited offering.
As someone who doesn't mind indulging in a little '80s nostalgia, I found the credits exciting, almost, as they made it seem like the movie might pursue the idiosyncratic effluvia of that period with a realistic detail that you don't usually get from period films. In movies like The Virgin Suicides, period objects picked up at the prop house are simply placed in the frame in a calculated fashion, and one doesn't get a true sense of the time, or of a reality. Napoleon appears to take place in the current day, but 98 percent of the world the characters inhabit appears to have been scavenged from a thrift shop specializing in the '80s, and this time by the characters themselves.
It's too bad director Jared Hess didn't just go all the way and set the film in that time, as excavating the period is all he has on his mind. The titular creation is a one-joke gag, a geek whose two modes are wincing intensity and seething frustration, and who has a "Pegasus crossing" sign on his door. Once that is established, that's it. Things happen, but they don't matter. The point is the spectacle of Napoleon and his similarly oddball family, delivered with a purported affection that feels vaguely contemptuous (certainly in the vicious spoofing of a black character's name, and its "black" spelling).
The Dynamite clan (assuming that is his given name; the film takes place in a world where these distinctions are not quite relevant) is derivative of Daniel Clowes' take on the human race in his Eightball comics, but only on the most superficial level, without the depth of observation or the honesty of open contempt. Napoleon just skids along like an 80-minute SNL skit, albeit one much cooler and funnier. Trapper Keepers and tater tots probably made a great basis for a short (Napoleon's origins), but apparently fall a little short as the meat of a feature.
If Napoleon failed my expectations, it's at least thoroughly watchable. Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch's collection of related shorts shot over almost two decades, is far more disappointing. A scattered array of cool celebrities are paired off in conversation with each other over the vices of the title, and the scattershot results are lined up and projected.
Three of the shorts are quite enjoyable, and a few are agreeable enough, but half involve middling, fruitless scenarios that beggar belief. Jarmusch's usual ease with deadpan charm fails him too often, leaving something stilted and lame. And when earlier conversations become echoed in new ones, the effect is less of continuity than of desperate recycling, especially when it's one of the better segments being cannibalized.
That short, in which Iggy Pop is endearing as meek counterpoint to Tom Waits' cantankerousness, is the kind of thing that makes me glad I saw the film. But there's a lot to slog through for those minor moments. I expected Coffee to be light, but I also expected it to be fun, and it isn't quite that.
--- Andy Davis