Aaltra (15) <br></br> Napoleon Dynamite (PG)

Minimalist comedy, maximum laughs

One of the film scenes I'm saving for my desert island is from Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana, a road comedy by the Finnish master of sloth-like lugubriousness, Aki Kaurismäki. Two middle-aged rockers - one mountainous and hyped-up on caffeine, the other scrawny and vodka-steeped - sit hunched across a café table from each other. Not a word is said and nothing happens, except that the coffee addict starts, almost imperceptibly, to shake.

For reasons I find hard to explain, this is simply one of the funniest screen moments I know. And if you can begin to see why, there's a good chance that you'll like the new European comedy Aaltra. It's decidedly of the Kaurismäki school: by all accounts, Tatjana is the favourite film of its directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern. Aaltra is minimalist comedy par excellence: the sort of film that you might not even realise is a comedy until the day after you've seen it, when you start to crack up in retrospect. In fact, the first gag proper comes, by my reckoning, 15 minutes in. It's slow-burn humour that leaves you uncertain whether the fuse has even been lit yet.

If I add that Aaltra is a Belgian disability road comedy, you might start heading for the exits. But stick with me, because Aaltra is the most joyously malicious entertainment around, as spiky in its own sullen way as Bad Santa. Aaltra is an odyssey across Old Europe, in wheelchairs and in many languages (French, Dutch, Flemish, Finnish, English - although cheekily, only the French is subtitled).

Directors-writers Delépine and Kervern - one tall and smooth, the other round and shaggy - star as mortal enemies, a farmworker and a motocross-obsessed businessman, who come to blows and lose the use of their legs. The two end up, more or less accidentally, setting out on the road together - the businessman to see a bike rally in Namur, the farmer to Finland to seek reparation from the company (Aaltra) that made his faulty tractor.

Like the best road films, Aaltra greedily gobbles up whatever happenstance oddities come its way. Hence an episodic structure in which events happen without warning or consequence, and various eccentrics wander in, spout forth, then disappear. The duo mug passersby, use outrageous emotional blackmail (particularly on a well-meaning family whom they eat out of house and home), and steal a bike from a hapless English motocross rider (Jason Flemyng, who could well have been cast as a gag on his name: a Flemyng among Walloons).

Most memorably of all, they visit a bikers' bar and witness a phonetically-scrambled recital of Sixties hit "Sunny" in a Finnish variation of what Reeves and Mortimer used to call the "club style".

Among films about disability, Aaltra is even more irreverent than the comparably bad-mannered French film Uneasy Riders/Nationale 7 (2000), which used its anarchic energies to make a point about attitudes to disability. Aaltra is dedicated to a disabled revolutionary anarchist of the belle époque, Albert Libertad, whose passion, we're told, was to cause as much trouble as possible, and whose example the duo joyously follow (although even they draw the line at Libertad's practice of "shacking up with nuns").

Entirely unpious, Aaltra is unapologetic about, in the first instance, sticking its characters in wheelchairs as a black joke, and using their newly acquired paraplegia as a vehicle for sight gags. But it also takes their situation seriously, at times savagely so. In hospital, both men cry, then later attempt suicide; but once they're past that stage, their pleasure is to vent their spleen on the world. The film is also blackly astute about able-bodied attitudes, like that of the obnoxious jerk encountered at a racetrack who treats them with flamboyant ill-will (you can't see his face, but he's played by Benoît Poelvoorde, the serial killer from Man Bites Dog - one of the handful of Famous Belgians who contribute cameos).

Beautifully shot in black and white 'Scope, with a grain that fairly crackles, Aaltra is framed so as to keep you watching every corner of the screen, just as Jacques Tati's films do. Some of the sight gags are so discreet that you have to squint to see what's going on, and there are some fabulously odd non-sequiturs: the duo exchanging stares with a mystery woman on a ferry, four sleeping (or dead?) men in the back of a van. And, just to make the homage clear, a certain Finnish auteur turns up at the end to provide the punchline to this sublime shaggy dog story. Aaltra is one of the comedies of the year, though if you're not committed to minimalism, it might require a certain leap of faith.

Such leaps, though, are a very personal matter. Many people find the American comedy Napoleon Dynamite an irresistible hoot, and since its premiere at Sundance this year it has acquired definite cult status - although you can't help suspecting that this MTV-produced low-budgeter was very much made with cult status in mind. Personally, I find Jared Hess's film pretty unamusing, and yet it's in the same super-low key I usually warm to.

Set in Hess's home town of Preston, Idaho - either in the early Eighties, or in some eternal transcendentally naff Eighties of the mind - Napoleon Dynamite can't be faulted on its oddball quality: imagine how your average small-town high-school farce might be if Mike Leigh were consulted on casting choices. Jon Heder, a gangling, red-haired 26-year-old Mormon with the deep voice of a catarrhal donkey, plays Napoleon, a sour-natured, semi-narcoleptic loner whose only pleasure is drawing mythical creatures on his exercise books. He lives with his extraordinarily weedy, chatroom-addicted brother Kip (Aaron Ruell, a sort of Charles Hawtrey of the Farm Belt), his grandmother and her burbling, gargling pet llama, who I couldn't help feeling was sadly underused.

Hess apparently based the film on his own home-town acquaintances, and Napoleon Dynamite does have the feel of an in-joke among old friends, working a little too hard to present its characters as sweetly zany geeks. Much of the wit comes in the framing - the way a big orange bus will suddenly lurch into view - which suggests that Hess has been watching both a lot of Tati and a lot of Road Runner cartoons. Hess reworks too many familiar high-school nerds-vs- jocks stereotypes, although not surprisingly it's the broadest stereotypes that prove the funniest: notably Diedrich Bader's monstrous martial arts instructor Rex, founder of the Rex Kwon Do ("Bow to your sensei!").

Worth seeing mostly for Jon Gries's amiably slimy faded footballer Uncle Rico, and for Heder's show-stoppingly goofy disco routine, the film is rather like Todd Solondz without the savagery, or like a stoned, entirely benign live-action South Park made by Mormons, which many of its participants appear to be. I wasn't mad about Napoleon Dynamite but I'll bear the principle of minimalist comedy in mind: some time next week I may wake up in the middle of the night laughing myself silly about it.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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