With the dry, deadpan humor of 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite
" and the offbeat look and tone reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film (1998's "Rushmore
"), "Nacho Libre" is the first genuine surprise of the summer movie season. Frequently uproarious and irresistibly good-natured, writer-director Jared Hess and spouse-cum-writing partner Jerusha Hess follow up their hugely successful "Napoleon Dynamite
" and make good on the notion that they are two of the freshest comedic filmmakers in recent memory. They are aided invaluably by co-screenwriter Mike White and star Jack Black (teaming up again after 2003's "The School of Rock
"), who have proven in the past that they know a thing or three about garnering laughs from quick-witted comic timing and bringing priceless eccentric touches to stories that might have otherwise seemed threadbare in lesser hands.
Ever since childhood, Nacho (Jack Black) has been raised in a poor but loving Mexican monastery specializing in the teaching and caring for of orphans. Now an adult, he has chosen to dedicate his life as a devout friar and cook for the parentless children whose place he was once in. Still, Nacho feels like something is missing, yearning for a kind of glory and respect he doesn't feel like he has ever received. Despite the word of God forbidding it, he secretly teams up with the emaciated, downtrodden Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) and begins moonlighting as a luchador, racking up fame and big bucks he intends to use for the orphans even as he continually loses to tougher, more skilled wrestlers. It is only a matter of time before his colleagues, including the kind, angelic Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), discover what he is up to, forcing Nacho to look within to decide what he believes is right and what he believes he must sacrifice in order to live a fulfilling life.
In outline form, "Nacho Libre" follows many of the conventions of your average sports movie and doesn't have much in the way of depth and originality. It is a testament to director Jared Hess, then, that he refuses to let this happen, adding his own quirky flavor and infectious brand of one-of-a-kind droll humor to every scene. As a broad comedy that wears its heart (and underpants) on its sleeve, there are big laughs throughout, many of them emanating from their sheer unpredictability.
The physical moments of Nacho and Esqueleto facing off against a wide variety of competitors in the ring (from vicious little people to masked musclemen) display savvy ingenuity and just the right amount of befitting exaggeration. And the more subtle but no less successful gags, including a hilarious explanation for how an unattractive brute of a woman with eyes for Esqueleto beats him upstairs and the best closing in memory of a heartfelt letter read onscreen, separate the film from the rampant lazy comedies that more often than not seem to bombard theater screens these days. Only the overuse of fart sounds in a couple of scenes stand out as unnecessary and thanklessly juvenile. Perhaps these are present to satisfy the young boys in the audiencethe PG rating never feels watered-down but is kid-friendly all the samebut that doesn't make them any less clichéd.
The three main characters and the actors portraying them are charmers. With "Nacho Libre," Jack Black may have claimed the coveted spot of most talented funnyman working today. As the sincere, uninhibited Nacho, Black owns the film from beginning to end. He is an actor who is instinctive, spontaneous and free of ego, who will do anything to make his audience smile or bust a gut, and, in this case, embodies his character so fully that he ceases being a performer in a role. That Black is certainly not of Mexican ethnicity only makes his brilliant work here worthy of further recognition. Besides all that, he ignites the narrative with a soul, as Nacho puts his faith to the test without compromising his religious beliefs.
As Nacho's oddball buddy Esqueleto, who proclaims himself a man of science over religion and is forever carrying around a buttered-up corn on the cob, newcomer Héctor Jiménez's sardonic approach excels when put up against Black's manic energy. He never winks at the viewer, which makes his serious line deliveries and facial expressions more amusing. Finally, in her first major American role, Penelope Cruz-lookalike Ana de la Reguera is a real find as Sister Encarnación. An ideal love interest for Nacho with one roadblockthey have vowed their lives to celibacyReguera glows with feisty intelligence and an overall goodness.
"Nacho Libre" culminates like all sports movies do with a championship wrestling match that pits Nacho against the merciless Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez), but again, director Jared Hess never loses sight of his sharp irreverence or drags things out beyond the breaking point. Like the rest of the film, it is tightly paced, fast as a whip and addictively entertaining. Complimenting the light, breezy tone is inventive cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet (2004's "The Woodsman
") that paints every shot as if it were on a canvas, and a lovely soundtrack of lesser-known pop tunes that layer and almost poeticize each scene. "Nacho Libre" isn't a deep motion picture, or an important one, but it does close to everything right in the name of comedy that is anything but pre-packaged and run-of-the-mill. As with "Napoleon Dynamite
," it has "cult hit" written all over it, and deserves the distinction.