Nacho (Jack Black) is a frustrated pushover stuck in a remote Mexican monastery. Eager to comfort his charge of orphans, Nacho indulges his love of the wrestling world by becoming a masked “Luchador” and joining their ranks. With the aid of his tag-team partner Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), Nacho finds his competition is brutal, but the money is good, which enables him able to impress the new nun on the compound, Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera). Forced to choose between the children he wants to help and the wrestling ring he loves, Nacho’s must search deep within himself and his “stretchy pants” to find the right thing to do.
Two summers ago, I sat dumbfounded in a tin can suburban movie theater watching a film entitled “Napoleon Dynamite.” Here was a movie that made 50% of the sold out crowd laugh until they were blue in the face, and left other half (including me) hoping a runaway truck would plow into the multiplex and bring a sweet end to the misery. Jared Hess’s one-trick-pony movie somehow conned a nation of online hipsters into thinking it was gold, and, for 15 minutes, it made a small dent in the popular culture. Now it’s a Hot Topic clearance shelf punchline. Watching “Nacho Libre,” it’s apparent what vital element was missing from “Dynamite.”
It didn’t star Jack Black.
Hess is a peculiar filmmaker with a distinctive kink to his comedy. To me, “Dynamite” was a two-minute idea chasing its tail for an unholy 80 minutes; squint hard enough and the same could be said of “Nacho.” The two films share almost the exact same visual scheme: Hess doesn’t push the camera to the comedy, instead he keeps a fixed focus on the frame, and the fun that can be held inside of it. Handed a much larger budget for “Nacho,” Hess has more room to play, but his minimalist comedy ideas are king to him when all is said and done. He loves the small moments, be it the team handshake between Nacho and Esqueleto, the melting butter on the treasured corn treats the Luchadores love, or Nacho’s intricately handmade costume; the details intrigue Hess, and help bring about a evocative portrait of Nacho’s Mexican village.
Working with his “School of Rock” screenwriter Mike White, it’s Black who takes Hess’s blueprint for comedy and sprints off into the sunset. To see Black still willing to get silly when other comedians are losing their taste for the game (Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell) makes him the ideal choice to personify Nacho.
Effecting a comedic Mexican accent (playful, not hateful), shoving his jelly belly into his balloon chest, and choosing a hairstyle-and-mustache combo reminiscent of an in-his-prime Ron Jeremy, Black is a snort and a half as the title character. He’s stomping around the film with familiar Blackisms (he does manage to sneak some singing in – a film highlight), and a roaring free-for-all reaction policy that results in the picture’s biggest laughs. Black is insatiable running around Hess’s free-range aesthetic, and his continual commitment to absurdly high energy and blindsiding comedy choices make this one of the best performances of his career. This is Jack Black’s “Ace Ventura.”
Strangely, it’s the wrestling scenes that drag “Nacho” down to the mat. Stunt-heavy and bringing around the more colorful characters of the film, they tend to be one-note sequences; you can only watch Nacho get his behind handed to him in so many ways before it the impact starts to numb. Also displeasing are the constant reminders from Hess that he’s making the film for the Nickelodeon crowd. There’s a lot of feces and flatulence humor in the film that just didn’t need to be here, especially in the same movie where Jack Black is running around in baby blue tights. That’s more than enough to fill the pre-teen “ewww!” quotient.
Perhaps the secret to getting the most creative juice out of Jared Hess is keeping comedy-poison Jon Heder away from him. “Nacho Libre” is such a remarkable improvement over “Napoleon Dynamite,” someone might want to check the temp in hell and see if it’s still toasty down there.Rating: B+