Oh, this is such a gargantuan put-on. Words can’t express. Even knowing that Nacho Libre is Jared Hess’ follow-up to Napoleon Dynamite, my reaction to the film is an emphatic “you have got to be kidding me.” I was worried that the extent of the humor here would be Jack Black saying Jack Black things in a bad Spanish accent, and I was right; the part I missed is that the entire movie plays like someone’s idea of a joke. It should have been released on April Fools’ Day.
First, I should note that if anyone is going to enjoy a film that consists of “Jack Black saying Jack Black things in a bad Spanish accent,” it’s going to be me. So despite my general distaste for all things Dynamite, I walked around with at least a mild desire to see Nacho Libre, even as it mixed with dread at having to endure 90 more minutes of what Jared Hess finds funny. And of course, I thought, the kids will love it.
Now, having seen the film, I am not so sure about the kids. Nacho Libre is both more peculiar and more simplistic than Napoleon Dynamite, missing the strong, distinct characters of that cult hit and filled with high concept jokes that become embarrassing in their omnipresence. And if Napoleon Dynamite rang hollow, Nacho Libre isn’t even trying. The most heartfelt thing about it is a lovely song that, in an uncanny display of actual filmmaking instinct, is reprised several times from the opening credits to the climax.
To the film’s credit, my pre-screening assessment of the humor content turned out to be a bit too specific. It is not merely Jack Black’s accents and mannerisms we are laughing at, but the more general notion of heavily accented characters speaking in common American colloquialisms. This is the movie’s central conceit, not the otherwise intriguing story idea of a Mexican friar trying to become a luchador. That’s flimsy by any standard, but this is where Black comes in: an impressive number of times, he finds laughs in things that should under no circumstances be funny. His speech about “stretchy pants” is a highlight.
Much of the humor is non sequitur in a way that’s glib and lazy rather than amusing. We are repeatedly told, without more, that Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), the lanky, somewhat feral local whom Nacho recruits to be his tag team partner, “believes only in science.” Okay, but is that really a joke? More to the point, is it a running joke? We laugh because it’s so stupid, but has that become the standard?
Once the film gets going with some luchador action, it fares better; Black’s hilarious physicality comes through in the wrestling scenes, and he reportedly took pains to do as many of the stunts as possible himself. But again, nothing and no one aside from Jack Black contributes anything. The extent of Nacho Libre‘s reliance on his presence is astounding. This is the purest form of a “star vehicle,” but I get the feeling that has less to do with the star’s ego than with a general lack of ideas.
Look, I like silliness and I like Jack Black. But this isn’t a movie, it’s a pitch; the sensation is akin to someone describing a joke to you. Randomly following Black with a hidden camera for an hour and a half would yield funnier results than Nacho Libre. Suddenly, Napoleon Dynamite seems like genius.