Masked Unmarvel

Despite Jack Black's valiant efforts, 'Nacho Libre' fails to live up to the promise of its marketing plan

by Randy Shulman
Published on June 22, 2006, 12:00am | Comments

''Wrestling is ungodly,'' remarks Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera) to Friar Ignacio (Jack Black). ''It's a sin.''

''Why?'' asks Nacho.

''Because these men fight for vanity, for money, for false pride.''

What the lovely, doe-eyed sister is unaware of -- indeed, what the entire Mexican orphanage/monastery where Ignacio slaves as a cook is unaware of -- is that the bottom-rung monk has clandestinely entered that sinful sporting profession, in particular, Mexico's violent, showy version of Big Time Wrestling known as Lucha Libre. Dubbing himself Nacho Libre and sporting a blue and red hand-crafted spandex mask, Ignacio fights alongside a scrawny, scrappy feral sort named Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a engaging personality who repeatedly insists that he only believes in science.

The pair join the local Lucha Libre circuit and consistently lose -- even to a pair of odd wolf-like wrestling midgets. But they're audience favorites -- underdogs who don't stand a chance in hell. And they still get paid for their losing efforts. Ignacio would prefer to win, but he recognizes a good thing when he sees it, putting the earned money into buying fresh food for the orphans. No more refried beans and day old tortilla chips for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack. Salad days have arrived at the Oaxaca monastery. Meaning, as well, that there will be one less moment of flatulence.


Nacho cheese: Black and wolf-thing

Nacho Libre is a sweet, big-hearted comedy that comes very, very close to taking off, but ultimately sputters and crashes. Yes, folks, it's a big old dud. Written by Mike White (School of Rock) and Jerusha and Jared Hess, and directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), Nacho Libre has its funny moments, but they are only occasional and none show much in the way of imagination.

The major gum-up begins with the narrative, which is sloppily constructed. White and the Hesses have thrown together a loose-bound collection of scenes that never quite fit together in a gratifying way. The writers know where Nacho's quest needs to end up -- a climactic bout between the newcomer and Mexico's reigning luchador, Ramses (portrayed in a shimmering gold mask by WCW star Cesar Gonzalez) -- but getting him there is an artificial and ultimately inconsequential affair.

The movie is rife with holes, one of the biggest being the overnight improvement in the monastery's foodstuffs. When Nacho suddenly starts serving fresh and immaculate chef's salads to all, no one even asks how he's able to afford the cherry tomatoes; they just gaze upon it in wonder and happily chow down. Either these are the most apathetic monks on the planet or the dumbest.

Nacho Libre wants desperately for us to embrace it with our hearts. It certainly helps that Black, with his cherubic features, mischievously arched eyebrow and impish grin, plunges into the role with every fiber of his being. It's a far more engaging performance than his blasé, uninspired turn in King Kong, but it's miles away from the brilliant, wonderfully explosive work he did in School of Rock.

On some level, Black must have known that Nacho Libre wasn't going to work, so he pushes through the crap in order to compensate. His personality surges through Nacho Libre like blood through a clotted artery. He can't bypass the clots, however, so his buildup of energy overflows into absurdist territory. The best example of this is when Ignacio pauses before a fight to sing a song he wrote about Sister Encarnacion. Black performs the number directly into the camera with a full-on comedic assault. Yes, it's funny -- maybe the funniest thing in the film. But it also confetti shreds the movie's reality.

Jimenez is a find, and whether he's baring his teeth in an awkward smile (a bit repeated a little too often) or screaming like a frightened woman (another bit repeated too often), Esqueleto makes a fine side dip to Black's Nacho. The impossibly beautiful Reguera gives the movie its romantic tug, though it's admittedly hard for a monk to get his freak on with a nun. (Their idea of a date: sit together and nibble toast.) Both Mexican actors probably have a future in Hollywood -- if Hollywood even pays attention to Nacho Libre.

It's dispiriting to watch Nacho Libre not live up to the promise of its marketing plan, which included unavoidable previews. But what could have been a piñata full of laughs, giggles and fun is instead hollow and empty. It's not even worth shaking a stick at.