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Thursday, June 15, 2006

'Nacho Libre' giddily hilarious, but runs out of steam

Jack Black stars as Ignacio (friends call him Nacho), a cook by day in a Mexican orphanage, who moonlights as a lucha libre wrestler to raise money for the orphans in this comedy from the creators of “Napoleon Dynamite” and the writer of “The School of Rock.”

The tubby luchador of Nacho Libre could be the long-lost cousin south of the border that Napoleon Dynamite never knew he had.

Nacho LibreNacho LibreNacho Libre
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As a monastery cook who raises money for the orphans he feeds by secretly competing as a Mexican wrestler, Jack Black's Ignacio, or Nacho, is just as committed to his aspirations as the dorky hero of the 2004 cult favourite Napoleon Dynamite, and just as delusional about his talent.

Both films come from husband-and-wife Jared and Jerusha Hess (he directed, both worked on the script) but this time they've teamed up with writer-producer Mike White, who also wrote Black's family-friendly The School of Rock and thankfully has shown a far more twisted sensibility in the indies Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl.

Together, they've come up with a movie that's more cohesive than Napoleon Dynamite - beer commercials have more plot - and not just a series of funny ideas with nowhere to go.

Black plays the humour totally straight - well, as straight as he can compared to the more manic work he's known for in films like The School of Rock and High Fidelity - but still gets a lot of mileage out of a slightly crazed, raised eyebrow or by adding an unexpected lilt to the end of a sentence.

With his thin moustache, soft accent and pseudo-suave demeanour, it's as if he's doing an extended impression of Antonio Banderas.

And of course, the very sight of him is ridiculous in his light-blue-and-red luchador mask and tights - his "stretchy pants,'' as he calls them when one of the sad-faced monastery orphans catches him playing dress-up in his sparse room. Black is fearless as always, and that's incredibly exciting to watch.

A little of his shtick goes a long way, though. Nacho Libre can be giddily hilarious and has many solid, silly laughs, but it runs out of flips and tricks - and steam - about halfway through. That's long before Nacho gets the chance to prove his might in a championship match against his idol, the beefy and fearsome Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez, a real-life wrestler who goes by the name Bronco). By that point, the thrill is long gone.

And regardless of the manoeuvring, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen this film before.

The location is different (cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet has shot the mountainous Oaxaca landscape in faded hues that give the film a '70s aesthetic) and the names have changed. But Nacho is Napoleon; his scrawny, slightly effeminate wrestling partner, Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), is Pedro; and the doe-eyed Sister Encarnacion (Mexican telenovela star Ana de la Reguera) is Deb.

Similar to Napoleon Dynamite, the characters often face the camera head-on, the humour is deadpan and the vibe is perpetually quirky. There's even a weird food fetish: corn on the cob instead of tater tots.

But both films also share an affection for their underdog characters that makes them endearing; there's a genuine sweetness here beneath all the elaborate costumes and wrestling-ring bravado.

Partly that's because you know Nacho is getting thumped and tossed about to put better food on the table for the kids back at the orphanage than the usual gruel he's forced to serve them. And partly that's because, as an orphan himself, he's been lonely and neglected his whole life, and competing as a luchador provides him with a sense of self-esteem he's never known.

And also it's because Nacho hopes his wrestling prowess will impress the lovely Encarnacion, for whom he writes a melodramatic song that sounds suspiciously like something Black would perform on stage with Kyle Gass, his partner in the faux folk-metal band Tenacious D.

It's hysterical - we're talking funny-to-the-point-of-tears funny. But it also yanks you out of this universe and reminds you that what you're really watching is Jack Black, Man in Tights.

Two and a half stars out of four.
*by Christy Lemire, Associated Press

Check the trailer out here. (med res)


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