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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nacho Libre

All the guys at the Essex Cinemas were looking forward to seeing Nacho Libre. I think it is a guy thing, but Jack Black does something to them. He is the man they wish they could be, I suppose because no matter how dorky he acts and no matter whatever happens to him in his movies, he always comes out on top. He’s also willing to push authority, but not be crude and asinine about it like some of his peers (ahem, yes Mr. Spade, Mr. Schneider, I’m talking about you). He kicks butt, yet he knows the difference between risqué and downright dirty, which elevates him to a higher league of comic, and hence he comes with higher expectations as an actor (at least by me).

One of my favorite performances of this past holiday season was Black’s portrayal of Carl Denham in Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong. At first it seemed a startling choice of casting, almost as bizarre as handing Michael Keaton the cape and cowl in the original Batman, but Black pulled off a stunning job in a dramatic turn that was both poignant and driven by greed and a hint of madness. After that I was sure he was on his way to an Academy Award and a new path for his career. And then he stumbled.

The weeds he fell into are called Nacho Libre, a prickly comedy about as low-brow as Soul Plane or Scary Movie, but not half as funny. Directed by Jared Hess, who brought the world Napoleon Dynamite, I had great hopes for this one because I thoroughly enjoyed that film, but Nacho Libre has only a few glimmers of the same wit.

Black plays Brother Ignacio, called Nacho for short, who as an adult orphan is now a member of the order of monks at the orphanage where he was raised in a small city in Mexico. His only job is to cook all the meals for the Brothers and the children, though he hates it because he has no budget and is forced to make meals out of virtually nothing but the spoiled food or scraps donated to the orphanage by restaurants whose garbage he rummages through on regular stops he makes each night on his scooter.

He yearns for better for himself and the orphans. He wants to be able to give them delicious meals, and he also wants to find something he is good at. The Brothers take uncharitable delight in ridiculing Nacho and making him feel unworthy to be among them, so by chance, when he is attacked one night by Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez: Mezcal), a scrawny but effective fighter, it occurs to him that by enlisting Esqueleto as a partner they can enter a tag team wrestling match and win the prize of 200 pesos. With his half, he can buy real groceries for the children.

This first match leads to another and then more. Even though they keep losing, the crowd loves the underdogs, and the promoters are paying the duo regardless of their winning or losing, so soon Nacho becomes a bit of a cult idol. Of course since his face is hidden by a mask, none of the monks at the orphanage are aware of Ignacio’s evening escapades. Only Chancho (Darius Rose; Bruce Almighty), one of the orphans who has a special attachment to Ignacio, has figured out his secret, but he is not telling.

Complicating matters (there’s always something) is the arrival of the gorgeous young Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera; Así del Precipicio), the school’s first female teacher, and the source of Ignacio’s suddenly questioning of his (and her) vows of celibacy. Meanwhile, of course, she thinks wrestling is a sin, and she thinks wrestlers are awful sinners, guilty of pride, greed, and violence. Oy!

Needless to say, there is wrestling in this movie. If I have any complaint it would be about that. There’s just way too much of it. The entire last half seems to be nothing but Nacho and Esqueleto in the ring or getting thrown out of the ring, which is fun to watch but it doesn’t really take the story anywhere. You could watch the same thing at home on pay per view or UPN and know that the fake wrestling you were getting was real fake wrestling and not staged-for-the-movies-wrestling.

Eventually Nacho is unmasked (!), a shocker I know, and he has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do back at the orphanage, but this being a Jack Black comedy you know it will turn out alright in the end. It’s not like he is going to go out into the desert and get eaten by a pack of wild dogs or anything, although that might make for a great alternative ending on the eventual dvd.

Overall, the performances are fine. Black is a convincing as a Mexican bumbler, and the rest of the cast are native Mexican or Mexican-American actors, so there is a flavor of reality to the production. The only thing missing are the laughs, because the few funny bits that are there are already expended by our having seen them in the previews and commercials on tv for the past several weeks.

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