Directed by: Jared Hess
Written by: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Mike White
Starring: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera, Hector Jimenez, Cesar Gonzalez
Before heading into the theatre to see Nacho Libre, one might ask an important question: how does a director follow up a movie like Napoleon Dynamite? As one of the runaway independent hits of 2004, the movie has gone on to develop a huge and rabid cult following. By the time the movie hit DVD, Napoleon Dynamite quotes were flying left and right, and Jon Heder had somehow become an unlikely MTV poster boy.
Now it’s time for filmmaker Jared Hess to prove that he was not just a one-hit wonder… but with a bigger budget and a well-known star, could he still produce the same kind of contagious and weird comedy? Or is it simply unrealistic to expect another breakout hit? Having Jack Black on board as an overweight Mexican wrestler certainly seemed like a stroke of genius, and the elements were in place for Nacho Libre to become another cult classic. I mean, how could you possibly take such a concept and make it unfunny? Well, just watch the movie and you’ll find out.
Despite the potential for hilarity, somehow Hess finds a way to stifle Black’s creativity and fails to deliver on the film’s premise. Maybe he was trying too hard, or maybe it just wasn’t a concept that could work for 90 minutes. Whatever the reason, Nacho Libre was a definite let down. If you go into this movie looking for another Napoleon Dynamite, you’re not going to find it.
That’s not to say that Nacho Libre doesn’t bear many of the same trademarks to Hess’ last movie. In terms of the visual style, silly humour, and even the basic plot, it’s not hard to spot similarities. Nacho is a young orphan who was raised at a monastery, and now works as a cook there. But he dreams of one day becoming a wrestler, and when a Lucha Libre tournament is advertised in town, he recruits a tag team partner and moonlights as the masked luchadore Nacho Libre. He plans to use the money he wins to help out the orphanage, but he also secretly hopes to impress the beautiful Sister EncarnaciÃƒÂ³n. The movie is loosely based on the true story of Fray Tormenta, a Mexican priest who secretly wrestled to make money for his orphanage.
One question that may be worth raising here is whether or not Jared Hess has a Mexican background. He certainly has a weird, kitschy fascination with Mexican culture, first with Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite, and now an entire movie about luchadores. This movie was cast almost exclusively with lesser known Mexican actors and real wrestlers, and although it’s nice to see a lot of outside talent being given a chance to shine, I have to wonder if Hess’ only goal was to milk unintentional humour from their accents. I’m not saying the movie is racist, but only that Hess seems to think that exagerrated Mexican culture is inherently funny, which is not the case (particularly not when everyone in the movie is Mexican except for Jack Black). He also assumes that the campy and playful world of Mexican wrestling will bring automatic laughs, without realizing that you need something more to keep people watching.
Believe it or not, Nacho Libre was a lot more outlandish than Napoleon Dynamite. The world is very cartoony from the start, and for a movie that is supposed to be loosely based on a true story, it’s pretty hard to actually believe that any of this really happened. The movie was shot on location in Mexico, but it doesn’t feel like it. Everything looks artificial, as though it was shot on a set somewhere, and never really gets across the feeling of authenticity that Hess was going for.
There is nothing to ground the ridiculousness of it all, no straight characters to play off of. The closest we have is Nacho’s love interest Sister EncarnaciÃƒÂ³n (played by Ana de la Reguera), who mostly seems oblivious to Nacho’s bizarre behaviour. It’s hard to identify with the characters in this movie, whereas Napoleon Dynamite connected with viewers because we all knew a nerdy kid like that in high school.
Nacho Libre also lacks the full assortment of funny characters that Napoleon Dynamite had (think what that movie would have been like without Pedro and Deb, Kip and Uncle Rico). In Nacho Libre, the only interesting character is Nacho himself, and while Jack Black has some decent moments, he seemed some what surpressed in this movie. I think his outrageous and over the top comedic style may have been ill-suited for the tone of the movie. Hess wants to get the most out of awkward silences, subtle one-liners and facial expressions, but Black needs room to work his magic and doesn’t do well with muted characters (you can briefly see the contrast when he lets loose and explodes into song near the end of the movie).
Nacho’s sidekick Esqueleto (HÃƒÂ©ctor JimÃƒÂ©nez) brought very little to the movie in my opinion. With the exception of his skinny and dishevelled appearance, he was not amusing in the least.
The sad truth is that Nacho Libre doesn’t have many truly funny moments. There were, however, a handful of fart jokes and some typical slapstick humour which served as an unfortunate reminder that this is, in fact, a Nickelodeon movie.
I did like the cinematography and some of the music (which is apparently a disorganized jumble of scores written separately by Danny Elfman and Beck, although neither of them wanted to be associated with the project when all was said and done). Mostly though, it just seems like Hess was trying too hard to be quirky, and the movie ends up falling flat.
Younger viewers may enjoy the movie for its kooky visuals, and die-hard Napoleon Dynamite fans can probably force themselves to laugh at it if they try hard enough, but for everyone else Nacho Libre will be a disappointment. Knowing that Napoleon Dynamite’s popularity took time to build, this could be a movie that works better with repeat viewings. The problem is, there are no memorable one-liners and no classic characters (save for one) worth making action figures out of. I can’t, in good conscience, award Nacho Libre any more than 2 out of 4 flying elbow drops to the head. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Napoleon Dynamite, Rushmore, Shallow Hal