Saturday, 21 November 2009

Films to see before you die: Nacho Libre (2006)

It's no secret that Napoleon Dynamite, the 2004 movie from Jared Hess, is considered by the crew at Wyld Stallyons to be one of the funniest and most original comedies of all time. It came out of nowhere, making a cult hero out of Jon Heder's titular character (he went on to feature in David Lettermen's Late Show and a spoof spot for Microsoft with Bill Gates), but it left director Hess a real problem: how do you follow up such a cool flick that's so damn funny?

Hess' second film, Nacho Libre concerns a monk played by Jack Black, who desires to be a luchador (a Mexican wrestler) so that he can help the orphans at the monastery and win the affections of Sister Encarnación (played by Penélope Cruz-a-like Ana de la Reguera). He enlists the help of Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez), who previously mugged Nacho, and together they form an unlikely tag wrestling team. The movie culminates in a fight with Nacho's nemesis, the masked Ramses (César González), who turns out to be not quite the hero that Nacho initially thought he was.

The movie is not quite as episodic as Napoleon Dynamite, although the plot is slight and still acts as the bare bones to hang a series of bizarre situations from. Nacho Libre shares with Hess' first film a love of the bizarre, absurd and grotesque, and the movie is peppered with more oddball characters than David Lynch's entire oeuvre. Hess succeeds in creating a unique, self contained world, powered, it would seem, by Jack Black's uniquely mobile eyebrows. The movie is full of comedy Mexican accents, overwrought melodrama, slapstick and funny, quotable lines ("Chancho, when you are a man, sometimes you wear stretchy pants in your room... Just for fun.")

On paper, this film should be wall-to-wall laughs, and yet inexplicably it occasionally falls flat and runs out of steam. It doesn't happen very often, but it's enough to take the edge off the film. The ending, in particular, is a bit of a damp squib, and I waited hopefully to the end of the credits to see if there was a Napoleon Dynamite-style coda, but no such luck.

Hess seems uncertain whether to make the fights funny, or keep them true to the spirit of Lucha Libre, and ploughs an uncertain and wavering path between the two. It probably says more about Hess' inexperience as a director than any lack of innate comedy skills, because when he gets the magic combination right, he's one of the most thrilling and enjoyable directors around. I suspect he'll learn lessons from some of the fumbles in the movie and go on to become one of the great comedy directors.

Jack Black is consistently funny as Nacho, unafraid to make good use of his pudgy body and gurning face. It's the kind of role Jim Carrey could do, but would make unbearably annoying; with Jack Black, it's endearing.

Nacho Libre is a quirky little film, full of off-kilter nuances, that suffers from the inevitable comparison to Napoleon Dynamite. Although some aspects of the film don't quite hit the mark, this is still a far funnier film than most comedies that emerge from Hollywood (or anywhere else for that matter). At least Jared Hess (and his co-writing wife Jerusha) are doing something different: after all, when was the last time you saw a comedy about a Mexican wrestling monk?