Jack Black's new comedy takes place in a parallel universe, a stylized world that's half Dada experiment and half live-action cartoon. It's a strange place that's also strangely familiar. As I watched Nacho Libre, I wracked my brain to get my cinematic bearings, and eventually realized where I was: If Black's innocent man-child monk hopped onto his preposterous, dilapidated scooter and made his way north into the U.S., he would cross paths with an innocent man-child on a much beloved bicycle. He is the long-lost, Mexican cousin of Pee-Wee Herman.
Director Jared Hess has followed up his cult-phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite with a work that does not seem particularly destined for phenomenon status -- though the word "cult" is probably about right when it comes to the audience likely to embrace it. Given his collaboration here with School of Rock writer Mike White and that picture's hyper, high-intensity star, the filmmaker's latest underwhelms somewhat. This is fast becoming the summer of the big laugh letdown. Just as in The Break-Up, where Vince Vaughn failed to meet the high standard he helped set in Wedding Crashers, Black falls short in comparison to S.O.R. If Will Ferrell stalls out in the upcoming Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, we'll have a historic trifecta of failure.
Not that Nacho Libre's failure is total. It's relative. The film is more amusing than, say, Lucky Number Slevin. But then, so are Hostel and An Inconvenient Truth. It's the work of high-caliber talent, but by and large it shoots blanks.
I suppose we can put off outlining the plot no longer. If you've seen the trailer, you've got virtually all the relevant facts. Black plays a friar in a Mexican orphanage. It's his job to cook the children's meals. His signature dish is a gruel composed primarily of refried beans and topped with a paltry sprinkling of stale tortilla chips.
Here's a typical gag. One of the orphans complains about having to eat the same thing all the time. Black assures him that the dish he's just served is especially tasty. He then lifts a spoonful of the slop to his own mouth and -- prepare for hilarity -- winces in disgust and spits out the food.
A short while later, the chunky monk is speeding down a country road on his scooter. He turns to look at something behind him and, when he turns back around -- you guessed it -- he makes a surprised face and flies off the side of the road.
A short while after that, there's a new arrival at the orphanage, a nun named Sister Encarnacion and played by the radiant Latin soap-opera star Ana de la Reguera. Black, it goes without saying, falls madly, immediately and pointlessly in love.
The film's single inspired idea is this: Black's character, Ignacio, has an unlikely dream. He secretly yearns to earn fame and riches in the ring as a Lucha Libre wrestler. Luchadors, we learn, are movie stars and superheroes rolled into one, masked, musclebound demigods who dazzle the poor and entertainment-deprived with theatrical, pile-driving, head-locking, metal-chair-slamming displays.
Because Ignacio -- like Pee-Wee -- is an innocent, he doesn't crave these riches entirely for himself. He wants to be able to purchase fresh ingredients in order to prepare healthier, tastier fare for the kids. Taking as his tag-team partner a scraggly local named Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), he scrounges materials for a costume and christens himself Nacho Libre. At night he sneaks out of the orphanage, does battle against other luchador teams, and loses every single match.
To his surprise, even the losers get paid, though, so Ignacio's standard of living does improve. Suddenly the children find mountains of lush salad on their plates. The sister, it goes without saying, receives extra-jumbo servings. And suddenly, the humble friar is able to afford luxuries such as white ankle boots and tight polyester slacks. Nonetheless, he's not fulfilled. He dreams about becoming the number-one wrestler in the land. Only a profound lack of ability and a chronic weight problem stand between Nacho and eternal glory.
A great deal also stands between the audience and actual laughs. Hess does a commendable job of imagining a surreal, make-believe Mexico in which to set a surreal comedy. But he never quite gets around to the comedy. White concocts one or two situations that approximate oddball humor, but most fall flat -- Nacho inviting the nun to join him for toast in his room, for example. Black shoulders the entire weight here, striving gamely to generate entertainment from thin air with a facial expression, a gesture, a clenching of his butt cheeks. But even the body of Jack Black is good for just so many yuks. By the time he stoops to singing a song he wrote for Encarnacion -- a tune that goes nowhere and could be an outtake from School of Rock -- it's clear: For this movie to be salvaged would take a miracle.
Contrast that forgettable musical moment with Herman's Big Shoe Dance to "Tequila" in Tim Burton's 1985 film. Now that's surreal, man-child entertainment. It's nothing short of timeless. Nacho Libre may be set in the same bizarro universe as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but as offbeat comedies go, they're worlds apart. Hess' first film may have been dynamite, but his second is ultimately a dud.