I don’t know that it’s fair to say that Jared Hess’ new film, Nacho Libre, proves that his film Napoleon Dynamite was a fluke. In the end, Nacho Libre is pretty much the same film all over again — right down to its nebbishy hero (Jack Black) and his even more nebbishy sidekick (Mexican actor Hector Jiminez).
Oh, the plot — such as it is — is different, and it has a bigger budget and one name star, but it’s the same sort of deadpan, meandering narrative. It has the same lack of discernible structure. It largely eschews big gags in favor of deliberate quirkiness (and when it doesn’t, it should have because Hess can’t stage a gag to save his life). And that’s precisely why it fails rather spectacularly.
If you look at Napoleon Dynamite objectively — apart from its somewhat mystifying cult status — the movie scored most of its points because it was unexpected and seemed fresh. It had something that seemed like charm. It inhabited a kind of alternate universe that was like our own, only not quite.
Nacho Libre is not unexpected and doesn’t seem fresh, the illusion of charm is missing, and the alternate universe seems more phony than alternate. Also, it was easy to cut Napoleon Dynamite a little slack — as concerns its clunky execution and low-grade technique — based on its obvious lack of budget. That’s not the case here. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment made about Edward D. Wood, Jr. (of 1959 Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) by one of his cohorts alleging that the shortcomings of Plan 9 weren’t a question of budget:”If he had 10 million dollars it would have been a piece of tasteless s**t.” A not wholly dissimilar dynamic is at work here.
In essence, what we end up with is a large portion of manufactured quirkiness served up with a side-order of constrained Jack Black that comes across as an elaborate build up to a punch line that never happens. Gag after gag is set up, but there’s never a payoff. A handful of its peculiarities are mildly amusing, but at best it’s an exercise in sheer pointlessness. Unlike Napoleon Dynamite, where the film’s trailer couldn’t convey the sense of the movie, every jot and tittle of Nacho Libre is contained in the two-and-a-half minutes of its trailer.
Black plays Brother Ignacio, a monk at an orphanage, who decides to become a wrestler called Nacho on the lucha libre circuit in Mexico in order to impress a pretty nun, Sister Encarnacion (Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera), and possibly better the lives of the orphans under his care. That’s almost the entire plot. Spread out over 100 minutes, it’s a singularly thin quesadilla of comedy.
The odd thing about this — especially to anyone familiar with cheesy Mexican horror movies from the 1960s with their wrestling heroes and heroines — is that the world of lucha libre wrestling could have been — should have been — a fruitful one, brimming with comedic possibilities. Not only are those possibilities not explored, the whole wrestling milieu isn’t very well established. Apart from a pair of midget werewolf-like wrestlers and a higher cheese quotient, there’s not much that sets the world of lucha libre apart from the World Wrestling Entertainment sideshow of U.S. wrestling.
Moreover, this is a singularly mean-spirited, ugly depiction of lucha libre wrestling where everyone involved in the sport is grotesque and unpleasant. The reigning king of the sport, Ramses (wrestler Cesar Gonzalez), is so nasty he won’t even sign autographs for Nacho’s brood of orphans, something his fellow wrestlers find amusing and reasonable. (Subtlety is not in Hess’ lexicon.)
Of course, nearly all the characters in the film — apart from the good-natured Nacho and Sister Encarnacion — are grotesque, and quite a few of them are unpleasant. It’s hard not to get the feeling that Hess has a very sour view of mankind in general and little or no sympathy for his characters, imbuing the film with a hateful undertone of mockery that’s completely at odds with its supposed “feel good” aims.
In a lot of ways, what Nacho Libre does best is reveal that Hess — like the star of his first film, Jon Heder — is a one-trick pony, and not a very likable one at that. He has assembled his collection of grotesqueries less to celebrate or champion them than to score cheap laughs at their expense. There is no lower form of comedy. Rated PG for some rough action, and crude humor including dialogue.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke