Saturday, June 24, 2006

Nacho Libre / *** (PG)

Ignacio/Nacho: Jack Black
Esqueleto: Hector Jimenez
Sister Encarnacion: Ana de la Reguera
Chancho: Darius Rose
Ramses: Cesar Gonzales
Emporer: Peter Stromare

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Jared Hess. Written by Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, and Mike White. Running time: 91 min. Rated PG (for some rough action and crude humor including dialogue).

After screening “Nacho Libre” with my wife Angie, she had the impression I was disappointed with the film. I wasn’t, but throughout the entire film I was embarrassed for Ang. I felt bad for her that I had won the evening’s viewing choice because her pick, “The Break Up”, started a half hour later. I couldn’t imagine she was enjoying the march of oddities acting oddly that was “Nacho Libre”, but she surprised me by saying she actually liked it. “It was kind of sweet,” she said. (Of course, she may have been covering to avoid telling me how she really felt.)

“Nacho Libre” is the result of the combined talents of two of the stranger forces and more unlikely successful partnerships in film comedy today — the actor/writer team of Jack Black and Mike White and the director/co-writing team of Jared and Jerusha Hess. Black and White have previously collaborated on two other films, “Orange County” and “School of Rock”, but “Nacho” marks their first joint effort under their Black and White production company. White, as a writer, seems to have an intrinsic understanding of Black as a performer, and writes characters which embrace Black’s unique penchant for the totally bizarre sentimentalist. “Nacho” is the sophomore film of the Hesses, a husband and wife team who found sleeper success with their 2004 cult hit “Napoleon Dynamite”. Both films prove their obsession with loser characters whose sad aspirations reflect the limited worlds they inhabit.

“Nacho Libre” has it own unique charm, but it takes some time for it to reveal itself. Black plays Ignacio, a friar cook in a small Mexican orphanage whose meals leave much to be desired. He tries to add flair to his dishes, which otherwise resemble vomit. Ignacio complains to the monks that he needs money for better food, and indeed, the day old chips he receives from a local restaurant are stolen by the nimble Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez).

There is little in Ignacio’s life to give him pleasure. As a child, he obsessed over the Mexican wrestling stars known as Lucha Libre, or luchador. His passion was squelched by the monks who took him in and still show him little respect. When the beautiful nun Sister Encarnacion (Mexican TV favorite Ana de la Reguera) comes to the orphanage, Ignacio is finally stirred into action and decides to become a luchador under the name Nacho to obtain the funds for worthwhile food.

These opening passages are oddly paced and only slightly peppered with the Hesses’ strange humor. It isn’t until Ignacio enlists the help of Esqueleto as his luchador partner that the film begins to discover its footing. The two find that even losing in the ring can make a luchador popular and well paid.

It’s with their second match that it becomes clear at just what level of absurdity we’re supposed to be taking all this. When Nacho and Esqueleto are assaulted in the ring by two flying little trolls, the movie jumps to a new level of comedy, both encompassing the oddity of the “Napoleon Dynamite” set and embracing Black’s over-the-top ideals.

Black presents his usual brand of insanity, although Ignacio’s ineptitude makes it hard to like him at first. The filmmakers may have abused the stereotypical “Jack Black” persona to a degree; they’ve thrown in a few excuses to have him sing that play like non-sequiturs and telegraph the laughs to the audience.

It’s the character of Esqueleto that truly steals the show, however, with his affable smile and love for a strange corn cob on a stick delicacy. Hector Jimenez has the same unforced appeal as Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro in “Dynamite”. Of course, Ignacio never appreciates Esqueleto as he should.

Just as Angie said, “Nacho Libre” is sweet, and it becomes sweeter as it nears the end, when Ignacio’s reasons for remaining a luchador become less selfish. But there’s no denying that it’s an acquired taste. If one is not a fan of either Jack Black or “Napoleon Dynamite”, it could be unbearable. Even a fan of one but not the other might have trouble with it. I wasn’t caught up in the cult hype of “Dynamite”, but did see its strange appeal. “Nacho Libre” is in some ways bolder and in some ways sillier, but that strange appeal of something different than your average comedy is still there. With a little patience, you might be able to see it.

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