With Napoleon Dynamite, writer/director Jared Hess shuffled into Hollywood from Utah with a bizarre, unique comedy that launched a flock of catchphrases and made an unlikely cult hero out of ’fro-domed Jon Heder. Nacho Libre is Hess’ studio debut, but retains the same herky-jerky comic sensibility, this time married to the slightly more explosive stylings of Jack Black and School Of Rock writer Mike White. Fortunately, it never feels like a shotgun wedding.
Black does not, even at his most subdued, do subtle, but Hess’ guiding hand means the performance offers more than brash air-guitar buffoonery. There’s sweetness amid the slapstick, while the director mines his Missionary past to present a Mexico as eccentric and off-beat as the small-town America lovingly mocked in his first film.
He’s been smart in the bit-part casting, calling on some real-life figures in the Central American spectacle of Lucha Libre (free fighting) to trade fisticuffs, bodyslams and sweat with Black, who gamely throws himself into everything, giving the wrestling scenes an authentic thump, albeit filtered through the amped theatricality of the Luchador world. How many other films this year can claim a pair of ultra-athletic wrestling midgets?
If there’s one director Hess invites comparison to, it’s Wes Anderson, who also specialises in creating hermetically sealed movie worlds for devotees to tune into. Nacho Libre may not have the consistency or surprising heart of The Life Aquatic – it is, really, not as good a film – but if you’re after popcorn-snorting gut-busts, this is the movie to pin. You just have to answer one question first: is the thought of Jack Black in tight pants being beaten up funny to you? Because that’s what sustains Nacho Libre during its somewhat episodic, slipshod story: the promise that pretty soon an oiled-up fat man will have the crap knocked out of him. Perhaps worried about repeating themselves, the writers have shied away from Dynamite verbosity, favouring pratfalls over particularly dextrous wordplay. There are still some sure-to-be-repeated bon mots (“Summon your Eagle Powers!”), but the verbal sparring between Nacho and his rail-thin, impressively ugly tag-teamer Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) never really gets beyond the first round, while the wooing of de la Reguera’s nun is somewhat subdued.
But enough kvetching. It hits, it misses, but it makes a mark. In a world where Steve Martin and Martin Lawrence are considered bankable comedy stars, there’s a lot to be said for Black’s charismatic japery and Hess’ defiantly singular perspective. Best to go with it, lie back and just submit.
Iffy pacing and too many fart jokes, but Nacho Libre has Jack Black wearing stretchy pants, which is clearly comedy genius.