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'Nacho Libre' is director's Waterloo

Jared Hess’ second film is no Napoleon Dynamite. Disastrously unfunny, it  lacks the former’s freshness.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published June 16, 2006


Napoleon Dynamite was a refreshing comedy because it came from nowhere, made by nobodies sticking to their cockeyed principles from first frame to last. Nacho Libre is what happens after unknown filmmakers catch such lightning in a bottle: a fatter budget, a bigger star, higher expectations and diminished returns.


Napoleon director Jared Hess’ second movie is more of a studio executive’s calculation than artistic ingenuity. Teenagers buy more movie tickets than any other demographic, they loved Napoleon Dynamite and they love Jack Black’s wild-man humor. Put them together and you have a hit, right? Probably so. But ticket sales don’t make this, The Break-Up or The Da Vinci Code better movies, only better marketed movies.


Black’s casting is the main reason Nacho Libre doesn’t work. His personality is simply too broad for Hess’ subtle surrealism; his stardom guarantees the eventual success of his character, when half the fun of Napoleon Dynamite sprang from the fact that such a misfit should fail. Black is a tornado ripping through material requiring only a gentle breeze. He uses more facial expressions in a single shot than Napoleon did in his entire movie. Jim Carrey couldn’t have played that delicately conceived role, and Black shouldn’t have played this one.


The comedian is Ignacio, an orphan raised in a Mexican monastery, where he prepares inedible food for children. He needs fresh ingredients that monks won’t pay for, so he moonlights as a luchadore, a masked professional wrestler, to pay for groceries. His tag-team partner is Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a scrawny specimen using the ring name El Skeletor. In addition to feeding the kids, Ignacio hopes to persuade Sister Encarnacion (telenovela star Ana de la Reguera) to forget her vow of celibacy.


That is all that matters in Nacho Libre, unlike Napoleon Dynamite, which featured an array of colorful characters orbiting the hero. When one riff got stale, another was available to keep the laughs coming. Here, it is all Black, all the time, and it remains stale. The punch line is him wearing spandex tights, proudly displaying a torso that should stay covered. That isn’t comedy; it is a guy with a figurative lampshade on his head at a party, not noticing that some guests are drifting to the other side of the room.


Perhaps Black’s too-eager approach stems from his realization that the Nacho Libre screenplay has a lot of problems. Hess and his wife/co-writer, Jerusha, desert many of the absurd instincts that served them well before. Mike White, who wrote Black’s previous comedies School of Rock and Orange County, was brought in to polish their script. I’m guessing the cow dung and flatulence gags are his idea, since Napoleon Dynamite didn’t stoop to that.
The earlier film embraced its misfits, becoming a pep rally for geeks, nerds and wallflowers, the same types that Nacho Libre merely sets up for easy jokes. Esqueleto would be a better choice of hero because he’s so unlikely. Instead, he is a fall guy taking lumps from nasty luchadores, or being chased by an obese woman who would’ve have been celebrated in Napoleon Dynamite for taking a long-shot chance at love. Encarnacion does nothing except look beautiful, since that is all beautiful people need to do in movies.


Once in a while, Nacho Libre hits bizarre notes that briefly entertain: Feral dwarves do make funny wrestling foes, an eye socket impaled by hot buttered corn on the cob is sick enough for a laugh and a love song for Encarnacion sounds like a mariachi cover of a Tenacious D ditty. But it is hard to imagine that any of the script’s dialogue will become a kind of code among people who see the movie, as has Napoleon’s passive-aggressive “wisdom.” Nacho Libre is all aggressive while we sit passively.

Nacho Libre
Grade: D
Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera, Hector Jimenez, Darius Rose, Peter Stormare, Cesar Gonzalez
Screenplay: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Mike White
Rating: PG; wrestling violence, crude humor
Running time: 90 min.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.