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Nacho Libre   B-

Paramount Pictures / Nickelodeon Movies

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Jared Hess
Writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Mike White
Cast: Jack Black, Héctor Jiménez, Ana de la Reguera, Richard Montoya, Cesar Gonzalez, Peter Stormare.

Review by Rob Vaux

Take a good look at Nacho Libre, because you won't see its like again soon: a summer movie with an original idea at its core. Not a sequel. Not a remake. Not a knock-off or an update or homage or any other euphemism for the same old reheated leftovers. It is its own animal, with no previous films to prop it up or hide behind. Love it or hate it, you've never seen anything like it.

OK, that's not entirely true. The film bears the spastic stamp of director Jared Hess, whose Napoleon Dynamite turned obsessive dorkiness into a bizarre work of genius. More directly, it takes its cue from Lucha Libre, Mexico's weirdly endearing form of professional wrestling (which found its way to the silver screen, after a fashion, with the beyond-cult Santos pictures -- available now at a flea market near you). Hess understands the affectionately camp appeal of masked Latino strongmen thrashing it out for love and honor in the squared circle, and finds in star Jack Black a perfect champion for the subject: goony, self-effacing, and possessing a fascinating comic physicality that defies you to look away.

Would that Nacho Libre could bring him to us without stumbling. As a comedy, it's only fitfully entertaining, though a few deep and abiding hyena laughs wait for those willing to search for them. Beyond that, Hess relies on the sheer nuttiness of his premise to carry the day. Audience members of the properly tweaked mindset should find that more than enough; for anyone else, it will be a long hard slog. Black plays Nacho, a put-upon Franciscan working at a poor orphanage in Mexico's Oaxaca region. He cooks meals for the other friars and the boys in their care, and while he makes a fine playmate for the children, his heart really isn't in his duties. Secretly, he longs for a much different life... the life of a hooded luchadore, performing feats of physical machismo before cheering crowds. It might have remained a fantasy if not for a fortuitous encounter with a skinny street urchin named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez), the arrival of a pretty nun (Ana de la Reguera) eliciting some less-than-pious urgings, and a local wrestling match promising 200 pesos for the winner -- 200 pesos that could turn Nacho's three-day-old bean curds into tasty delicious salads for all.

Hess demonstrates the same quirks and affectations with this material that he showed in Napoleon Dynamite: there's an emphasis on odd foods, a penchant for plastic knickknacks, and a flair for the uniquely awkward dialogue of the socially maladjusted. Nacho and Esqueleto embrace their newfound identities as luchadores, despite the fact that they're, um, less than qualified physically. They lose -- a lot -- but even the losers get paid, and as their dreams slowly meld with the prospect of a better life for the orphans, Hess transforms the film into a simplistic yet heartfelt homage to the silliness and outsized acrobatics of the wrestling ring. It's one joke, openly flaunted and only sparingly developed, but Black's manic persona finds real inspiration in its trappings. He seems made for this world, with his bulging eyes and fearless capering, and his character's deluded self-confidence can always be counted on for a chuckle.

Beyond his performance, however, the film is on shakier ground. There's a dangerous line between self-effacement and cynicism here -- when the winks and in-jokes threaten to turn the whole thing into a condescending sneer. It's also tempting to accuse Nacho Libre of cultural insensitivity, portraying Mexico as a cartoonishly impoverished country inhabited by freaks and sad-eyed peasants. But filtered through the eyes of Lucha Libre, it's no more Mexico than Vince McMahon's testosterone-fueled nightmares are America. It simply magnifies the mythology of a select phenomenon to construct its narrative. Nacho's life is merely another story from the ring: full of heroes, villains, and goofy-yet-sincere morality plays. Nacho Libre laughs at luchadores, yes, but it also celebrates their bizarre and colorful energy. The film's enthusiasm for its subject -- evinced most tellingly in the shining adoration of Nacho's orphan fans -- wavers at points, but never succumbs to dismissive sarcasm, leaving a small but pure sense of joy at its heart.

Is Nacho Libre any good? Frankly I haven't the first idea. Beauty of this sort is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and while Black's fans have cause to rejoice (there's a few Tenacious D-style musical numbers thrown in on top of everything else), those not hip to this particular style of strangeness will find little to appreciate. Even the most supportive audience member may grow weary by the third act, when sheer repetition starts to wear the concept thin. But whatever its faults, you won't walk out of it thinking it's just like every other movie this summer. That carries pleasures of its own, and Nacho Libre deserves modest kudos for making the most of them. It may not be brilliant, but at least it has the virtue of being brilliantly different.

Review published 06.15.2006.

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