Nacho Libre (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When a movie tries to be intentionally campy, it follows a difficult road. Most films that attempt this fail because the artifice of the situation drains the humor from it. Genuine camp is the child of earnestness and ineptitude, and is only found in features that the director intends to be taken seriously. That's not to say it can't be manufactured as a means of parody, but such an act requires a deftness of touch that, at least in this case, escapes director Jared Hess. After a promising beginning, Nacho Libre goes off the rails with its over-the-top satire and intentional campiness failing to generate many laughs. The film starts out funny, but it doesn't take long for it to become tedious.

It's possible to see some similarities between Nacho Libre and Hess' Napoleon Dynamite. Both films are about outsiders, and both main characters have bizarre best friends. However, the main character in Napoleon Dynamite was an unpleasant individual. In Nacho Libre, he's a lovable loser. We're supposed to identify with him, or at least like him, although Jack Black's unrepressed performance often makes Nacho more irritating than endearing. But it's clear from the script that we're supposed to root for Nacho. That means that the single unique defining characteristic of Napoleon Dynamite - the main character's off-putting personality - is absent here. That changes the nature of the humor from biting wit to the aforementioned intentional camp.

One other note: I can deal with the idea of a nun as a sex object, although none of the nuns I knew as a child looked anything like Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), but it's odd for this to occur in a PG movie. The movie tiptoes around a relationship, which makes the romance tepid and unsatisfying. Nacho and Sister Encarnacion have taken vows of celibacy, but he goes out of his way on more than one occasion to intimate he might be willing to break his. We never find out whether she feels the same way. Nacho Libre is conflicted about how to deal with this pair and, as a result, never resolves their feelings for one another.

Nacho is a friar at a Mexican orphanage. He has lived there since he was a boy and has grown up to be the cook. He has a secret love - wrestling - but he can't admit to it because the monks think it's the work of the devil. Even the newly arrived nun, pretty Sister Encarnacion, agrees that wrestling is bad for the soul. This disheartens Nacho, since he likes her, but it doesn't stop him from starting a career in the ring behind a mask. Along with his tag-team partner, the skeletally skinny Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), he engages in a number of amateur bouts. Nacho, despite never winning, becomes a popular figure, and he eventually earns a chance to take on the king of wrestling, Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez), in an exhibition match.

If you're a fan of Jack Black's overacting antics, you may find what Nacho Libre has to offer to be palatable. For me, the film dragged. It's only 90 minutes long, but it seemed longer. I laughed a few times, usually at physical gags (such as what happens when Nacho makes the mistake of challenging a bull), but too little of the film's humor worked its magic. Neither the romance nor the friendship between Nacho and Esqueleto has an effective emotional payoff, and attempts to humanize the Nacho caricature make parts of the film feel awkward. Too much in Nacho Libre doesn't work to enable me to recommend it to anyone except a card-carrying member of the Jack Black fan club.

Nacho Libre (United States, 2006)

Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera, Hector Jimenez, Darius Rose, Cesar Gonzalez
Screenplay: Jared Hess & Jerusha Hess & Mike White
Cinematography: Xavier PĂ©rez Grobet
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2006-06-16
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1