Nacho Libre

Kooky, but Ultimately Mild Farce

Director Jared Hess made quite an impression on movie audiences with his first feature film, Napolean Dynamite, which followed the misadventures of a dorky but likeable nerd in Malad, Idaho. The film was snapped up after Sundance, and went on to do an impressive $45 million at the box office, while inspiring popular culture with phrases like “sweet” and t-shirts that read “vote for Pedro”.

Now comes his sophomore feature, Nacho Libre, which ups the ante by adding a big name comedian (Jack Black from King Kong), a big name co-writer (Mike White from School of Rock), and even features music by Danny Elfman. Hess has definitely been given the brass ring, but does he pull it effectively?

Ignacio (Black) is a mexican friar who has always wanted to do one thing: be a wrestler. He idolizes them secretly, since his duty of taking care of the orphans in his charge prohibits him from pursuing such vain things. When he sees an opportunity to enter an exhibition match, he dons a mask and jumps off the top rope at the chance. Will Nacho succeed and win the support of the beautiful new Sister Encarnacion?

One thing I will give Hess credit for, is that no one makes movies like he does. Here we have a goofball lead completely surrounded by an ethnic cast. Everyone exept Sister Encarnacion is downright homely. Nacho’s sidekick is unnaturally gaunt, while several other characters are flagrantly obese. It’s very un-Hollywood, which is a nice diversion.

Black is wonderfully zany, as we expect, and has a lot of fun playing Nacho. He mugs and wails and flexes and does other such Jack Blackian things, all of which made me smile. Nacho is really just a stupid guy with no grip on reality, and I can’t think of anyone who could do a better job with this part.

The supporting cast is also fun, with Héctor Jiménez hamming it up as the uber-thin, snaggly-tooth (who is fond of grimacing, no less) tag team partner, Steven. Ana de la Reguera is absolutely stunning as Sister Encarnacion (she looks like a young Penelope Cruz), and very sweet as well.

As a director, Hess is definately a minimalist. Many of his shots are static and two-dimensional (trademarks of a frugal indie director), with little style. I realize he letting his characters do the storytelling, but I hope he can develop as a visualist to let the camera be part of the story as well. He does break out of mold one time: when Nacho walks away from the orphanage in a cool wide tracking shot that goes slo-mo when he dons his mask. Here’s hoping Hess grows more in this direction.

The problem with Nacho is that you have all this great stuff on the screen, but it’s not generating laughs. There are very funny parts (such as what Nacho does with his first wrestling winnings, and the climactic bout), but the film is uneven. I wanted to be laughing more, and I wasn’t. Comedies have to be funny, it’s their job. Nacho Libre should have been a hot meal, but instead ends up as a mild dip. Tasty as junk food perhaps, but unsatisfying as a main course.