Down for the Count

Jack Black submits to Nacho Libre.

Jack Black at the Nacho Libre premiere

Sophomore efforts don’t get much more sophomoric than Nacho Libre (Paramount), the Mexican wrestling buddy comedy from 26-year-old indie director Jared Hess. Hess’ first feature, Napoleon Dynamite, was a deadpan geek comedy that charmed the pants off Sundance in 2004 and went on to become a minor cult sensation. Personally, I never got Napoleon Dynamite. Hess’ tribute to anomic misfits in an Idaho high school seemed like a Wes Anderson movie without the elegant wit or a Todd Solondz movie without the grim humor. But at least I saw what you were supposed to like about it. If Napoleon Dynamite coasted too far on stock gags and borrowed tropes (including a title and main character shamelessly lifted from Elvis Costello), Nacho Libre tries to squeeze more mileage out of even less material, and sputters to an ignominious halt in the first 20 minutes.  

At least three-quarters of Nacho Libre’s jokes rest on the assumption that being Mexican is inherently hilarious. Jack Black plays Brother “Nacho” Ignacio, a monk who works as a cook in an Oaxacan orphanage, as a Latino numskull with an accent somewhere between Ricky Ricardo and Ren of Ren & Stimpy. Ignacio speaks, mysteriously, in Americanized slang (“So anyways, let’s get down to the neety-greety”) and follows up grandiose pronouncements with a self-deprecating “whatever.” But he dreams big dreams, doodling drawings of himself as a lucha libre wrestler and lusting chastely after the angelically hot Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera). In a back-alley scuffle over a discarded bag of tortilla chips, Ignacio meets up with Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a tall, scrawny beggar who manages to wrestle the chunky monk into submission. Soon, the two are making money as a Laurel-and-Hardy wrestling tag team, getting their asses handed to them by masked behemoths named things like “Ramses” and “El Snowflake.” But what if Esqueleto and Nacho got serious about the sport and started to do some ass-handing of their own?

This setup is, of course, transcendently stupid, but that’s not Nacho Libre’s problem. Dodgeball (2004) proved that dumb sports movies about flabby, clueless losers could be pretty charming. But Dodgeball had a real affection for its flabby, clueless losers. As he did in Napoleon Dynamite, Hess spends the majority of this film reminding us that its main character’s dreams and aspirations are worthy of amused contempt, then expects us to cheer at the end when those dreams are realized. Or are we cheering ironically? The film’s odd last shot, in which Nacho responds to his true love’s thumbs-up with a stiff, fake-looking smile, leaves the audience in a state of awkward suspension, unsure if this is a real happy ending or a happy ending that makes fun of happy endings. Either way, the emotional payoff feels unearned.

I’ll risk being branded a humorless prig by calling attention to the implicit racism of Nacho Libre. Visually, the film pays homage to its setting: The wrestling costumes are glorious, and the flat compositions and dusty pastels recall Mexican religious iconography. But the music choices feel insultingly generic: a pan-Latin blend of Brazilian pop standards and internationalist kitsch like Esquivel’s “Mucha Muchacha.” The story and dialogue appeal to a xenophobic slacker complacency that regards other cultures as little more than a source of campy knickknacks. As for the plentiful sight gags, they rarely rise above the level of ha-ha-he-fell-down, and occasionally sink below it: During the inevitable training montage, Nacho, for no apparent reason, hurls a cow patty at the head of his wrestling buddy, Esqueleto. Yeah, throwing shit in your partner’s face—that would be funny. Er … heh.

Jack Black is a force of nature, a spectacularly antic performer who falls outside categories like actor, singer, or comedian. His sheer physical exuberance reminds me of Judy Miller, the preteen Girl Scout character Gilda Radner used to play on Saturday Night Live, who bounced on her bed belting disco tunes into a hairbrush. Black has inspired moments even in Nacho Libre, particularly when his character bursts into spontaneous song. But at this point in his career, fresh from his flat role in King Kong, Black risks falling into the dreaded Robin Williams Vortex—the career trajectory of the comic whose manic energy is diverted into increasingly unfunny projects until, finally, he becomes unfunny himself.

Black has the potential to be the rare comedian capable of making lemons into lemonade, but the fruit he’s squeezing here is bone-dry. Nacho Libre’s writers—Jared Hess, his wife Jerusha, and the usually funny Mike White—treat every non sequiturasif it were a surefire cult catchphrase. And maybe, given Napoleon Dynamite’s breakout success and the pockets of isolated but hysterical laughter I heard in the screening room, some of this wan dialogue actually will pass into common parlance. Whatever.