There is no movie more overrated in recent history than Napoleon Dynamite; it’s to cinema what the Doors are to rock ’n’ roll, a thing blindly and inexplicably championed as though it were a religion above being blasphemed by nonbelievers. Every time someone tries to explain its appeal—the deadpan comedy that plays like Bergman drama, the geek love that smells like self-loathing, the catchphrases that drop like rat pellets—it just slips a little further from my grasp. Even the nine-minute short from which it sprang was some seven minutes too long, suggesting writer-director Jared Hess possesses a febrile mind unable to focus long enough on things like character or story—in other words, the basics of moviemaking.
So it’s of some relief to announce that Nacho Libre, the latest from Hess (and co-writers Mike White and Jerusha Hess, Jared’s wife), isn’t an entirely unpleasant experience, which is to say it doesn’t feel as though it’s worn out its welcome before the second reel. It takes slightly longer than that before its gears begin to slip and its jokes begin to wear and its laughs begin to fade; it’s only 30-45 minutes too long, and therefore a marked improvement for a filmmaker with the attention deficiency of a TV sketch-comedy writer promising a premise that can’t withstand the elasticity of a feature. Or maybe a little Jack Black goes a long way.
Black, tenacious in tight pants of various shades, plays the titular Nacho, a kid raised in a Mexican orphanage who dreams only of becoming a luchador, with a superhero’s mask obscuring his round face in the wrestling ring. The entirety of the movie deals with his sneaking out of the orphanage, where he’s now a cook, to wrestle with a scrawny thief named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez). There is a love interest too—a nun named Sister Encarnación, played by Mexican soap opera star Ana de la Reguera. She’s the straight man who delivers one of the movie’s few genuinely, uproariously brilliant lines. (It has to do with her favorite color.)
And that’s the story—which means that, despite what publicity materials say, Nacho wrestles not to save the orphanage but merely to satisfy a childhood craving for fame, glory and the opportunity to grapple with masked men. There’s nothing at stake except his boundless ego, which means the movie lives or dies by its performances and its gags. Fair enough: nobody goes to see a movie from the maker of Napoleon Dynamite expecting proselytizing social realism, after all. But Nacho Libre has the cheap, faded feel of something made in the late 1970s or early ’80s, dusted off and trotted out before going to video.
One could easily mistake it for a parody of Rocky, down to its appropriation of an iconic scene; it is to the Sly Stallone franchise what Top Secret! was to the spy-movie genre or Airplane! was to the disaster movie, a self-contained spoof in which every line’s intended to elicit the giggle that propels the lumbering beast onward and upward. To that extent, Nacho Libre also recalls such dopey disposables as Meatballs (without the emotional investment), The Jerk (without Steve Martin) and Mel Brooks’ better movies (without the film-history flashbacks). See it today and forget it tomorrow—that’s the mantra of Nacho Libre, which has some memorable lines (most delivered by its supporting players, chief among them the so-skinny-he’s-almost-transparent Jiménez) that want to be catchphrases, if only they didn’t slip from your grasp.
The entirety of the endeavor rests on Black, who spends almost the entire film jiggling his shirtless frame across the widest of screens; he rivals Will Ferrell in his desire to use his man-tits to elicit cheap titters. The movie plays like a Jack Black best-of, down to the song he performs for de la Reguera that sounds like a Tenacious D throwaway gone Tejano. And he’s morphed into another J.B.—John Belushi, who likewise acted with his eyebrows and bounced from side to side where most people merely walk forward. Where some might find his accent offensive, it’s so innocuous it plays like the tomfoolery of a child who doesn’t know any better. Nacho’s an idiot, no more and no less, because otherwise he’d disappear completely—like his movie, 20 minutes after you leave the theater.