Can a pair of hapless non-athletes achieve glory and muchos pesos in the wrestling ring, and save the orphans from certain starvation? That you should even ask. But after sitting through Jared Hess' offbeat comedy about Mexican wrestling, Nacho Libre, you might well wonder: How did a simple but workable premise about a glorious form of entertainment end up as such a flat and not-very-funny film?
In Mexico circa 1970, we meet Ignacio, a.k.a. Nacho (Jack Black), a cook at an orphanage who dreams of becoming a luchador, or a wrestler. Secretly, Nacho teams up with the skinniest man in all of Oaxaca, "Esqueleto" (the Skeleton), and hits the lucha libre ... free-style wrestling ... circuit. They're a success, only in that somebody always needs to lose.
Nacho is the second feature from Hess, who hit pop-culture paydirt with Napoleon Dynamite in 2004. Hess co-wrote the script with his wife, Jerusha, and Mike White (who also penned Black's headlining hit School of Rock). Both Hess and White have had success in depicting the inner lives of outcasts and goofballs, but here Nacho and his associates are barely defined cutouts.
The world of lucha libre, a real-life spectacle with more amplified drama, silliness, heart and spectacle than any Jack Black routine, is surprisingly underdeveloped. For instance, only a fan would know about the luchadores' fanatical devotion to secret identities maintained by constant mask-wearing. A scattering of real-life luchadores appear in the ring, but Nacho can't decide how to play it. Black's moves on the mat are real and awkward as befits his character, but a pair of ferocious, feathered midgets named Satan's Helpers have their ring moves gimmicked with trick shots.
Deadpan lines such as "Summon your eagle powers" and "Did you not tell them they were the Lord's chips?" are apt to tickle those who found Napoleon Dynamite to be a quotable guffaw-fest. But I was just barely amused by Nacho: pratfalls, arch line-delivery, wiggling eyebrows, farts ... none of it was really funny. Then there's Black's accent: a broad, off-and-on silly Mexican imitation apparently left over from some 1970s variety-show skit. Offensive? A riff on being offensive? Or is Black just a dreadful mimic? Beats me.
That's not to say that Black doesn't appear to throw his heart and much of his exposed girth into Nacho. He never stops working, but fervor doesn't equal quality entertainment. Nacho's real find is Héctor Jiménez, who plays Esqueleto; he delivered as much mugging as Black, but without the winking self-consciousness. Jiménez also has the most tortured smile I've seen since Lon Chaney's mask fell off in Phantom of the Opera ... a slow-moving lip-part that terminates in a square grimace filled with oversized teeth. And in the ring, Esqueleto's girlish shrieks knew no equal.