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Crunchy, With A Lot of Cheese   by Rus McLaughlin

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Nacho Libre
2006
Screenplay: Jared Hess & Jerusha Hess & Mike White
Directed by: Jared Hess




Nachos make a good snack, but not really a good meal. So to does “Nacho Libre,” a nicely goofy Jack Black vehicle that’s about as shallow as you’d expect a wrestling flick to be. But do you always need an Oscar-winning Best Picture period piece staring Meryl Streep as someone deeply unhappy? No, you do not.

Black stars as humble Franciscan monk Ignacio, an orphan who now cooks for orphans at the rural Mexico monastery he grew up in. He doesn’t actually have any money to buy food, so he generally scavenges toss-outs from the local restaurants. This limits his menu in every conceivable way.


The delicate equilibrium of this gastronomical holocaust is thrown way off-kilter by the arrival of Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), one hot nun assigned to teach at the monastery for plot reasons. She is, after all, the only female at the monastery and only one of four women in the entire film. The brothers go gaga for her, Ignacio in particular, which might’ve been weird in a “Thorn Birds” sort of way if Ignacio were better at the monk thing than he actually is. His passions lie elsewhere.

Ignacio is secretly a fan of Lucha Libre, the fantastically outlandish world of masked Mexican wrestlers, and fanaticizes daily about becoming a Luchadore himself. Secretly, because as Sister Encarnacion points out, Lucha Libre is sinful act performed by vanity-driven bullies. Score one for the penguin. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to win a few pesos for fresh ingredients at a bottom-rung match comes along, Ignacio jumps at it. He makes a mask, teams up with the toughest guy he knows - Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a corn-obsessed beanpole who once mugged Ignacio for a bag of week-old tortilla chips - and enters the ring as Nacho, his long-suppressed dream come true.


They loose. Badly. But they still get their share of the dough, and that whets Ignacio’s appetite for more.

As a follow-up to his underground hit “Napoleon Dynamite,” director Jared Hess doesn’t stray one inch from the style that earned his first film so many quote-obsessed fans. There are no punch lines in a Hess comedy, unless you take the term in its most literal sense. Slapstick aside, the humor comes from the goony characters and their totally serious, yet thoroughly oddball world-views bumping up against other goony characters and their oddball word-views, and how that makes them all the coolest dorks around. You’re either going to get into the kooky, surreal vibe and laugh like a sick little monkey, or you aren’t.


It helps that everybody’s so strange. Paring up Black and Jimenez - pure comic gold, there - is just the start of the freakishness. Casting “Nacho” must’ve been a process of weeding out all the normal and semi-normal-looking people from the audition line. De la Reguera is the sole exception, towering in her beauty and purity. Put next to this cast, she could easily become the first Catholic saint to grace the cover of Maxim.

“Nacho” does have more plot than “Napoleon,” for what that’s worth. Nacho and Esqueleto fight a whole roster of Luchadores, including the world’s most dangerous midgets, in a series of entertaining, acrobatic bouts leading to a knuckle-duster against their loutish former idol, Ramses (real-life wrestler Eduardo Gomez). Victory and defeat both give Ignacio newfound resources to impress Sister Encarnacion (“woo” is far too strong a word), but the thrill of combat causes him to loose focus on his all-important orphan flock... the very reason he got into the ring in the first place. If you’re taking that twist at all seriously, odds are you think you’re watching an entirely different film. Something with Meryl Streep, perhaps.


The film breaks down in the few late, damaging scenes where Black breaks character to go into some painfully obvious Jack Black/Tenacious D shtick. Given such a heavy dependence on character, and how well Black made quiet, restrained Ignacio come alive, Hess really should’ve reigned that in.

Details like that keep “Nacho Libre” from greatness, but not from goodness. It’s fair to say Hess breezes around the sophomore slump with this harmless but amusing flick. And c’mon... it’s Jack Black as a masked Mexican wrestler getting the crap repeatedly beaten out of him. Nothin’ wrong with that.





DATE MOVIE POTENIAL: YELLOW LIGHT
You have to get into the spirit of Hess’ warped universe or you’ll just feel trapped there, and “trapped” does not a good evening make. On the other hand, if you and your beau know what a Lyger is and think it’s still funny to bring the topic up in conversation, this is Date Heaven in a tidy 92 minute package.