One thing becomes abundantly clear after watching "Nacho Libre", the new film starring Jack Black. Black seems to have no inhibitions about what he will do for a laugh. He seems willing to do anything and everything for a laugh. This works for and against him, often at the same time.
"Nacho Libre" is a supremely silly movie, and it is also a disappointment. Directed by Jared Hess and co-written by Hess, his wife, Jerusha (the team behind the great "Napoleon Dynamite") and Mike White (one of the people behind "School of Rock), I was expecting a lot more.
Ignacio (Black), or Nacho as he is known, is a cook at a very poor Mexican monastery. Every day, he wakes up early, makes a disgusting soup topped with donated stale tortilla chips and serves it to the many orphaned children and the bitter priests, all of whom complain about Nacho's skills as a cook. Nacho isn't very good at anything he tries. He asks the priests to let him have more responsibilities, so they let him visit a sick man and Nacho instantly begins giving the man Last Rites, waking him up in the process. One evening, he spots Ramses, the most famous Lucheador (wrestler) in all of Oaxaca, exiting the ring, wearing nice clothes, walking to his expensive car. Nacho decides he can do that and enlists the aid of a local vagrant, Esqueleto (Hector Jiminez) to be his wrestling partner. Soon, they begin training. The first match does not go well, but Nacho and Esqueleto are surprised to learn they get paid anyway. Nacho is also very interested in a new nun who has transferred to their monastery, Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera, a dead look-a-like for Penelope Cruz), and decides he wants to become a wrestler for the money, to help the children and win the heart of the new nun.
As I watched "Libre", I was instantly struck by the attention to detail in the film which appears to have been shot on location in Oaxaca, Mexico. If it wasn't, they did a remarkable job of making everything look very authentic. Everything has a slightly dusty, aged appearance. Posters hang on the walls and appear tattered. The monastery has clearly seen better days, a couple of hundred years ago. These people are poor and it shows. Even the scenes at Ramses house, during a big party, show that even though he may be well off, he isn't really rich. He is simply well-off. It all looks real.
Jack Black is fearless as far as the lengths he will go to get a laugh. He struts around in tight sweatpants and no shirt through a significant portion of the film; not a pretty sight, but initially very funny. This is the key to "Libre", many things are `initially' funny, but the third, tenth or twentieth time we see them, they begin to lose their freshness and it becomes a tiresome joke. As soon as he able to raise enough money wrestling, he uses some of the prize money to buy vegetables for the monastery and make salads for everyone. He theatrically crushes a large handful of chips and blows into them, trying to woo Sister Encarnacion, by blowing the chips across her salad. It is a funny scene, over the top and amusing, but it is not the first time he has done something like this and it feels less fresh every time. Immediately after this, he opens a bottle of dressing and pours it on her salad in a way he means to be seductive.
The only original offbeat moment happens when Nacho invites the Sister to his room... for toast. In the next shot, we see them sitting across from one another, eating big pieces of dry toast. This scene is the one moment which delivers on the premise of the director's first film. It is an oddball moment. I just wish there had been more.
Throughout the film, Black shows wild abandon and proves willing to do anything for a laugh. When he starts training to be a wrestler, he borrows sweat pants from a chubby boy at the orphanage and then he and Esqueleto start running down a dirty road, wearing the tight sweats and little else. On Jack Black, this brings to mind the image of Homer Simpson jiggling the fat around his belly and watching as it takes on a life of its own. His stomach heaves and moves, his legs flex and virtually every part of his body moves in a different direction, as we watch all of the parts move. Considering what he is wearing, we can see just about everything, causing a symphony of laughter. But these types of jokes are repeated; later, he tries to attract Sister Encarnacion by wearing tight slacks and a shirt. Later still, he is wearing his wrestling outfit and everyone walks in. He tries to stand up tall, and appear heroic, but his belly sticks out like a sack of potatoes.
Throughout, Black comes up with some interesting facial expressions and weaves together an interesting accent, but even this seems a little tired after a while. Every time Black spoke, I kept thinking of an old Saturday Night Live skit when Jimmy Smits was the guest host. Smits walks into a board meeting as various board members try to decide what to order for lunch. Every time someone says "Enchilada" or "Taco" they exaggerate the pronunciation and Smits had to explain no one says "Encheeladddaaaa". It was a funny skit, but it only lasted five minutes. Black does a pretty good job of trying to make his accent believable, while also making it funny, but over the course of 100 minutes, it wears thin.
As the film moves towards the inevitable wrestling scenes, the film also switches gears and these become the main thrust of the narrative. They just aren't funny. Nacho and his co-hort don't appear to be good wrestlers, so their opponents have to be funny or interesting to make it worth while to watch Black get smacked around the ring. They aren't. We never really learn who any of them are, beyond their looks. Also, it isn't really clear why Nacho would be allowed to wrestle Ramses, the big star. Nacho never seems to win a match, so how does he get the chance?
None of the other characters are interesting or add anything to the film, contributing nothing to the narrative. Yet another letdown from the creator of "Napoleon Dynamite". In his first film, Hess created a rich cast of characters, all of whom were interesting, funny and unusual. Not a single character in the new film can compete with Jack Black.
At one point, an overweight woman begins making eyes at Esquelito. This seems to be designed to be an ongoing joke, but after chasing him through the house for a few minutes, the character disappears.
When the jokes about flatulence begin, you realize the director has run out of ideas. "Dynamite" is a great comedy with a lot of offbeat humor and a great, subtle sensibility. "Nacho Libre" has some subtle touches, but they are instantly devoured by Black as he runs from one point to the other, attempting to do anything to make the audience laugh.
Worse yet, the film attempts, at times, to introduce dramatic elements; these seem to be from a completely different film. Nacho forms a friendship with the orphans, the new nun thinks wrestling is a bad thing. Because these elements aren't played for laughs, they act like red lights. As soon as any comedy momentum begins to build, these moments appear forcing us to completely reconsider what is happening. Green light. Red light. Yellow light. Red light. Crash.
"Nacho Libre" has a number of laughs in it, but all of the other elements are at odds with the comedy, detracting from it and making it an experience worthy of a DVD viewing, if that.