June 22, 2006


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Nacho Libre (PG)
Jack Black and Jared Hess team up to make their collective fan bases burst into tears and lose faith in humanity with Nacho Libre, a painfully subpar comedy.

Ignacio (Black) is a monk and one of the many religious types running a Mexican orphanage. His job is to make their meals — though he has no money for fresh fruits and vegetables and uses donated chips. But he harbors a secret passion — to be Nacho, a version of one of the much beloved wrestlers he sees in the town, flanked by women and stepping out of shiny cars. After getting robbed of his chips by a surprisingly nimble street dweller Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), Ignacio decides to ask the man to be half of a tag-team wrestling duo and fight in an open match. They fight and lose rather spectacularly but find that even losing gets you a nice wad of cash, which Ignacio-by-day/Nacho-by-night uses to buy better food for his orphans and for Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), a recently-arrived nun who has enchanted Ignacio.

Though Nacho gains some small amount of fame, especially in the eyes of the orphans who sneak a peek at the wrestling matches when no one is watching, he worries that he will be exposed as a monk. It is a sin, he believes, to wrestle and, more importantly, he thinks it will be a major turn off for Encarnacion.

Much like Napoleon Dynamite (which Jared Hess also wrote and directed), Nacho Libre is really less a story than a loosely connected collection of scenes. As is Hess’ style, most of the scenes are set up like postcard snapshots of whatever oddity is the focus of the scene. It’s a kind of camera-generated irony that has us in the audience rigidly looking in one direction while the action moves around in the box that is our field of vision. The movie approaches the action with a deadpan seriousness, which heightens the comedic effect of whatever is happening in each individual bit (an orphan turns down the gloppy beans, the chupacabra-like-midget wrestlers attack a surprised Ignacio and Esqueleto, Ignacio and Encarnacion share a snack of toast), adding an extra layer of absurdity. The result is that even the slightest, thinnest jokes, sight gags and pratfalls cause big laughs.

Normally I’d feel bad about overanalyzing some visual element and so completely sucking the funny out of a set-up that has produced much snarfing-Coke-out-my-nose hilarity but to heck with ruining the running joke of Nacho Libre — not even Hess’ visual style is able to ring any guffaws from this wet noodle of a film.

Where to start? I’d rather not harp on the Speedy Gonzales and Slow-Poke Rodriguez accents that give slap a veneer of embarrassing south-of-the-border minstrelness on the whole endeavor. I like both Black and Hess and so I prefer not to think of this as racism but as an imbalance in the delicate laughing-with-you/laughing-at-you equation.

I like both Black and Hess and so I’d also like to think that Nacho Libre isn’t going to be exhibit A in a long list of exhibits proving that they are merely one-trick ponies. Hess’ little clever-cam scene blocking and his love of endearingly outsider-ish characters do not mix well with the thin-soup of this concept. Too many times we get shots of some sad-eyed little Mexican kid with his tummy popping out of his shirt and the only reason we would have to laugh is a cruel one.

Likewise, Black’s melodramatic facial expressions and exaggerated physical gags seem a little too much like he’s desperately trying to get a spot in a semi-professional improve comedy troupe. He goes big when he should stay restrained, he breaks into rocker-guy when he should be staying with wrestling-fanatic-monk. And, throughout it all, that damn accent slowly grates on my nerves.

Nacho Libre has absolutely everything going for it, including — most painfully — the occasional genuinely funny idea.

Heartbreakingly, not a single aspect clicks. F

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