Ignacio “Nacho” (Jack Black), an orphan raised in a monastery turned monk and cook, dreams of another, more adventurous life outside the monastery’s walls. Ignacio has always dreamed of becoming a “luchador,” a professional wrestler and celebrity adored and revered by thousands of fans as super-powerful, righteous demigods. Ignacio does have a few adoring fans, but they’re all under twelve. The monks treat the good-natured Ignacio with a mix of contempt and derision, partly because of his ignorance of the Bible. The orphanage isn’t in good shape either, as funds are in short supply for fresh vegetables to feed the orphans and the monks.
Enter Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), a nun who permanently joins the staff of the orphanage. She may be off limits, due to bothersome celibacy vows, but that doesn’t stop the monks from attempting to spend time with Sister Encarnación. Ignacio’s equally smitten, but his attention turns back to wrestling when he spots a poster offering 200 pesos to the winner of a tag-team wrestling competition. Ignacio needs a partner, and quick. He finds a wrestling partner in Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez), a feral street person he encounters and fights one evening. Esqueleto (“Skeleton”) takes some convincing, but the offer proves to equal to the challenge.
Ignacio and Esqueleto have heart, but few skills, as their first, second, third, and fourth wrestling bouts prove over and over again. They make money, the crowds seem to love Ignacio and Esqueleto, not for winning, but for losing. Ignacio, though, wants to receive the same respect Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez), the local champion, does, but Ramses may be less than he appears. He may be idolized as a hero in and out of the ring (the golden mask he never takes off definitely helps in adding an aura of mystery around his “real” identity), but it’s almost inevitable that the underdog Ignacio and Ramses will square off somewhere down the line in lucha libre, with an attempted unmasking thrown in to heighten tension.
Even though Nacho Libre was co-written and directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), it’s Jack Black’s film from the first post-credits scene he’s in to the last. Black’s in every scene, often shirtless, wearing powder blue and red tights, red boots, and a red cape. His character’s no superhero (at least he has no superpowers), but rather the pure-hearted, slightly dumb underdog who wants nothing more than to emulate his favorite wrestling characters. Black plays Ignacio broadly, but that’s to be expected in a comedy/farce. At least Black doesn’t overplay the sympathy-generating scenes, using his rubbery facial expressions to add levity to almost every scene.
Story wise, the scenes that don’t include wrestling or training tend to downplay the humor and push the pathos (or over-relying on toilet humor, a sure sign of desperation), but sadly that wasn’t a smart choice. The gags disappear, the chaste romance between monk and nun creates little humor and too much discomfort, leaving moviegoers hoping for the next gag- and joke-filled wrestling sequence. It’s not enough, though, especially when the crude caricatures of rural Mexicans and their cultural life (parody turns into camp and derision). Equally problematic is Hess’ decision to cast physically unappealing extras that can be only interpreted negatively. Whatever touch Hess showed in portraying outsiders in Napoleon Dynamite seems to have deserted him here.
Ultimately, Jack Black fans will find something to like in Nacho Libre, but they won't find it in the monk-save-the-orphanage-while-lusting-for-the-hot-nun storyline, or in the crude, rude digs at Mexican culture. They'll find something to like in Black's typically over-the-top, hyperactive performance or in the wrestling scenes. If, instead, you're a fan of Mexican wrestling, or better yet, the Mexican wrestling films that served as late-night fodder for Spanish-language television stations, then Nacho Libre will keep you entertained, if only fitfully. As for Black, he still hasn't proven that he can carry a comedy without the aid of a strong premise and an equally strong supporting cast (as he had in School of Rock). That doesn't mean Black can't, just that Nacho Libre isn't that film.
© Mel Valentin, 16th June, 2006
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