I was not one of the many who were bowled over by the slow, curveball charms of Napoleon Dynamite. Sure, Napoleon Dynamite was fun and quotable and had a certain lunatic bravery to it. But Napoleon Dynamite was also plotless and meandering, and had a little of that back-and-to-the-left feel to it -- as if it was looking down on its characters, as opposed to looking out through them. The nice thing about mixed and incendiary indie debuts is that they usually lead to subsequent films, where you get a sense of if the director/writer/star has, in fact, more than one movie in them. So it is with Nacho Libre, the second film from Napoleon Dynamite's director and co-writer Jared Hess. Hess is back behind the helm here, and this time around he and regular co-writer (and wife) Jerusha Hess even have the benefit of a script polish by Mike White (Chuck and Buck, School of Rock) for their film. Is Nacho Libre a worthy follow-up to Napoleon Dynamite? Well, part of answering that question involves how worthy you think Napoleon Dynamite is in the first place. ...
Jack Black stars as the kindly, dim and warmhearted Ignacio, a monk-in-training at an abbey/orphanage in rural Mexico. Ignacio makes meals for the orphans out of scraps, and is pretty much low man on the abbey's totem pole in terms of duties: He doesn't even rate conversation time with the new cute nun, Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguar). Ignacio has but one dream: To be a luchador, a masked wrestler. And once it dawns on him that he can wrestle and use the money to buy the orphans better food, well, bring on the tights. ...
Mexican wrestling is, to me, the equivalent of Amish bowhunting or Thai square dancing: A subtle-yet-meaningful cultural variation, almost certainly full of history and subtlety, of a leisure activity I couldn't possibly care less about. My general ignorance of Mexican wrestling -- I've never seen a Santo film, for example -- is no impediment to my seeing Nacho Libre, just as I think that a general ignorance of real Mexican wrestling was probably no impediment to Hess in making Nacho Libre. Nacho Libre is, essentially, an excuse to put Jack Black in tights.
Which is, for me, the problem, because the broader Jack Black is, the less I like him. The more Jack Black plays fully-rounded people (School of Rock, High Fidelity), the easier it is to appreciate his charisma and timing, the realness he brings to actually acting. The more surface his performance(Shallow Hal, King Kong), the harder it is to enjoy Black as a screen presence. And in Nacho Libre, Black's work is as surface as his pants -- his blue, stretchy pants -- and his huge confused afro.
Ignacio does become a wrestler, alongside his tag-team partner Esquelito (Héctor Jiménez), a scrawny, bad-toothed feral wildman who keeps reiterating how he does not believe in God: "I believe in science!" And they turn their purses -- not winnings -- into increased happiness and better meals for the orphans until their secret is exposed and blah, blah, blah. We've seen this story a thousand times; if you do go see Nacho Libre, you'll have pushed that number to a thousand and one.
And there are laugh moments in Nacho Libre, certainly; it's hard to not get a laugh out of Jack Black trying to drink an eagle's egg raw, or from Black making individually decorated salads with a kind of monomaniacal frenzied energy, or from -- the comedy director's friend -- a midget sequence.
There's also the question of if -- and it's maybe a bigger can of worms than Nacho Libre deserves to have opened in its name, but still -- Nacho Libre is just that little bit racist. Napoleon Dynamite took place in a universe where everyone was an idiot, but that seemed low-IQ system seemed to cut across racial lines. Nacho Libre takes place in a universe where everyone is an idiot, but as it's all in this kinda-fictional Mexico, there's an unfortunate racial edge; add in Black's outrageous fake Latino accent, and you've got a film that skates incredibly close to the line of stereotype and caricature. I know you can't look for realism in a comedy, but why does Nacho Libre's Mexico have the sunny, sleepy, small-town two-dimensional feel of a backdrop in a Speedy Gonzales cartoon?
But why worry about racism when you have Jack Black doing turnbuckle leaps, riding a silly motor scooter or giving half-assed eulogies for people who aren't even dead? These things are kind of funny, I guess, and kind of funny is what Nacho Libre is. Interestingly enough, Nacho Libre is brought to us by Nickelodeon Films and is rated PG; if your kid is looking for a few poop jokes, broad accents, fat guys in tights and wrestling midgets, I hope they dig Nacho Libre. But for me, Nacho had no sizzle, no spice, no flavor, no homemade goodness; it's a little bland, a little flavorless and a little too slack to make me do anything but laugh weakly at the occasional raised eyebrow or pooched-out roll of flesh erupting over aquamarine tights. Napoleon Dynamite got by thanks to a certain freshness, but this serving of Nacho Libre seems to be mostly scraps and leftovers.