There is no movie more overrated in recent history than Napoleon Dynamite; it’s to cinema what the Doors are to rock and roll, a thing blindly and inexplicably championed as if it were a religion above being blasphemed by nonbelievers. And every time someone tries to explain its appeal—the deadpan comedy that plays like Bergman drama, the geek love that smells like self-loathing, the catchphrases that drop like rat pellets— it just slips a little further from my grasp, though I might watch a movie entirely about Uncle Rico and his attempts to throw a football over them mountains. Even the nine-minute short from which it sprang was some seven minutes too long, suggesting writer-director Jared Hess possesses a febrile mind unable to focus long enough on things like character or story—in other words, the basics of moviemaking.
So it’s of some relief to announce that Nacho Libre, the latest from Hess (and co-writers Mike White and Jerusha Hess, Jared’s wife), isn’t an entirely unpleasant experience, which is to say it doesn’t feel as though it’s worn out its welcome before the second reel. It takes slightly longer before its gears begin to slip and its jokes begin to wear and its laughs begin to fade; it’s only 30 to 45 minutes too long, and therefore a marked improvement for a filmmaker who approached the medium with the attention deficiency of a TV sketch comedy writer. Or maybe a little Jack Black goes a long way.
Black, tenacious in tight pants of various shades, plays the titular Nacho, a kid raised in a Mexican orphanage who dreams of becoming a luchador, with a superhero’s mask obscuring his round face in the wrestling ring. The entirety of the movie deals with his sneaking out of the orphanage, where he’s a cook charged with doling out black-bean gruel topped with stale nacho remnants, to wrestle with a scrawny thief named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez). There is a love interest too—a nun named Sister Encarnación, played by Mexican soap opera star Ana de la Reguera, who looks exactly like Paz Vega and Penélope Cruz. See it today and forget it tomorrow—that’s the mantra of Nacho Libre, which has some memorable lines that want to be catchphrases, if only they didn’t slip from your grasp.
The whole endeavor rests on the flabby shoulders of Black, who spends almost the entire film jiggling his shirtless frame across the widest of screens; he rivals Will Ferrell in his desire to use his man tits to elicit cheap titters. Black, rested from his restrained performance against the green screens of King Kong, bounces back like he’s been released from detention in the School of Rock and allowed to roam the empty hallways without supervision. Nacho Libre plays like a Jack Black best-of, down to the song he wrote and performs for de La Reguera that sounds like some Tejano version of a Tenacious D throwaway. And where some might find his accent a tad offensive, it’s so innocuous it plays like the tomfoolery of a child who doesn’t know any better. Nacho’s an idiot, no more and no less, because otherwise he’d disappear completely—like his movie, 20 minutes after you walk out of the theater.