I always hated those kids who wore the “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts. Wearing themed movie clothing beyond age eight is questionable at best (don’t even get me started on the guy in my office who wears a screenprint shirt that says “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta”). But like it or not, those Pedro tees worked their way into the darkest crevices of pop culture two summers ago, when the charming but wildly overrated Napoleon Dynamite hit screens nationwide and left its mark on postmodern, almost Dadaist comedy. Writer/director Jared Hess’ first feature was an earnest collection of sketches in place of a plot, with the kind of fetishistic detail to 1980s detritus that only someone who came of age then could truly love (Hess is 26). The only thing that saved the film was the cast’s intense commitment to inhabiting these truly bizarre characters, from Jon Heder’s proud nerd Napoleon to Aaron Ruell’s oddly sweet Kip to the pathetic posturing of Jon Gries’ Uncle Rico. But their work could only take the film so far and in essence proved to be its biggest hindrance: There wasn’t a film there, just an idea of one, as if Hess and all involved were always at least one step removed from the humor. The thing felt like a gag, as if the filmmaker was saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone made a movie like this and really meant it?”
Hess’ latest film, Nacho Libre, continues that trend of keeping any kind of humor or sentiment at arm’s length. Jack Black stars as Nacho, a cook at a Mexican monastery full of young orphan boys. He’s liked by the orphans but viewed as somewhat of a nuisance by the rest of the brothers, who have frowned on Nacho’s love of wrestling since he himself was a young boy in the priory’s care. Now that he’s grown, he’s relegated to the kitchen and given leftover chips from the nearby village as his main ingredient for the meals. One day, a new teacher comes to the monastery, Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), and Nacho develops an immediate infatuation. But I should stop you right there: If you’re expecting anything of this relationship, you’re out of luck. Compared with minimal screen time Nacho shares with Encarnación and the utter lack of any development, even for a comedy, the burgeoning romance between Napoleon and Deb looks well planned and epic. No, the point of Nacho Libre isn’t to put Nacho and Encarnación together, or even for Nacho to overcome some kind of obstacle on his way to winning some predictable match, though he eventually does. The film exists solely for Hess and Black to goof off, and on this count they mostly succeed. However, there’s no one to care about or like along the way. It’s a stunningly unengaging comedy and downright boring in parts.
Nacho is mugged one night in town by a rail-thin, wild-eyed beggar who steals the orphans’ chips. Rebuked by his superiors for the loss, Nacho finds the man, Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), and persuades him to join Nacho for tag-team wrestling, where the winner gets 200 pesos. In the first of many matches, Nacho and Esqueleto (Spanish for “skeleton”) get thoroughly owned but, since the losers still make money, they’re invited back to fight again next week. The crowd seems to like them, so Nacho and Esqueleto accept the invitation. This is about the point in the film where it loses its already tenuous grasp of annoying little contrivances like plot and character and barrels straight ahead into self-involved non-humor and outright tedium. There’s the requisite training montage, though this one involves throwing beehives and smearing horse manure on your opponent’s eyes. I’ll say this for Hess: The man likes his poop. Not since Blazing Saddles has a filmmaker so wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to have characters fart so often for no reason. They aren’t sick; in fact, Nacho has a pretty regular colon flow, and spends more than one scene talking to Esqueleto from behind the closed door of a bathroom stall and doing his business. Maybe this is what Hess had to do to move from indie storytelling to mainstream features, or maybe it was penciled in by co-producer Nickelodeon Movies. Either way, you’ve got to be a little kid or phenomenally stoned to laugh at the barrage of scatological gags. I’m neither.
I kept hoping that Hess would set up at least one domino to knock down, come up with one reason for Nacho to become a luchador other than the intrinsic but limited humor of Jack Black in tights. Perhaps the orphanage would be in danger of closing, spurring Nacho into the ring to win enough money to save his friends. Sure, it would be a blatant ripoff of The Blues Brothers, but it’s still a serviceable storyline. But I was sorely mistaken. It’s Hess’ m.o. to eschew plot in favor of just watching things unfold at a glacial pace, using a formal composition and obscurist soundtrack that reads like a film student’s poorly done imitation of Wes Anderson.
The funniest moments in Nacho Libre are when Black cuts loose and sings a pair of silly but catchy tunes with the whole-hearted commitment be brings to his pseudo-rock band, Tenacious D. But these moments are few, and the rest of the time we’re forced to endure the film instead of enjoy it. Black is a talented comic actor when he’s allowed to be himself. He hasn’t quite got the knack for creating characters that Will Ferrell does; rather, he’s at his best when he’s doing his own shtick in a variety of circumstances. His most enjoyable comic performances are born of the sweet-natured, foul-mouthed, aspiring rock star he is at heart, the comical braggart with rough edges who remains somehow likable. His turn as record-store snob Barry in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity and the lazy but agreeable Dewey Finn in Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock were so much fun because they had Black himself at their core. (Those directors are also on a whole other plane of existence than Hess.) But Nacho is nothing but a caricature, a loose idea of a joke with a bad accent and no direction. He’s not detestable or anything, but he’s also not likable in the least. Beneath the cape and tights, there’s nothing but hot air.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Is It Better to Burn Out or Fade Away?
Film | June 16, 2006 | Comments ()