There's a scene midway through Nacho Libre that is as exciting to me as anything I've seen in a movie in quite some time. In it, men stand around at a party, drinking cerveza and noshing on chips and salsa. To American eyes, though, this isn't just any old gathering: The men at the party are wearing garish masks and three-piece suits. The scene is compelling not just because it's so fantastical but because no one in the scene acts like it's out of the ordinary: Because it's not.
This is the world of the luchadores, practitioners of Lucha Libre -- a form of Mexican wrestling. Successful luchadores are some of the biggest celebrities in Mexican society, so much so that they are, as a nun in the film describes, false idols that the people worship. They wear their wrestling masks all the time -- not just in the ring -- their identities a secret to all but their inner circle. Nacho Libre is not as good as its topic, however. It merely scratches the surface of its setting, and the best thing that can be said about it is that I now know what I'll be for Halloween this year.
Nacho Libre is the sophomore effort from co-writer/director Jared Hess, whose debut film, Napoleon Dynamite, achieved cult status with scads of eminently quotable dialogue and an impossibly nerdy -- and charming -- protagonist. Also notable about Hess' first film is the seeming ease with which it communicates its filmmaker's voice.
In this regard, Nacho Libre may be most notable for the revelation that Hess longs to make movies like Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). At times, Hess mimics Anderson so totally that it's unnerving, employing Anderson trademarks like the slow-motion depiction of a character's walk, caption descriptions of on-screen people and items, and the love of boyhood paraphernalia. Unfortunately, Nacho Libre is best when it is at its most Andersonian, and it feels adrift when it loses that focus.
In concept, Jack Black is perfect for the role of Nacho. Black understands that his body looks utterly unathletic, and he plays up this fact with poses that mock the failures of his physique. But his body is actually graceful and the juxtaposition of fat and nimble makes him a perfect candidate for a wrestler.
Black is the whitest actor playing a Mexican since Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, but at least it's explained in the film, as Nacho's mom is said to have been a Lutheran missionary from Scandinavia (his dad was a Mexican deacon). Black also sports the worst Mexican accent in recent memory, with phrases like "nitty gritty" churned out like he has a mouthful of guacamole. Black channels Antonio Banderas at his cheesiest, and in a movie this silly, it absolutely works.
He also provides Nacho with a wide-eyed, sometimes even cross-eyed, dumbness that is perfect for the character in the world outside the ring. But one of the main problems with the movie is that Nacho needs to be a more competent wrestler.
Like Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre is about misfits trying to find a place in a misfit society. In Dynamite, the main character is shown to achieve a grace not normally achievable when he performs a choreographed dance. The moment the dance ends, his body sinks back into discomfort, as if gracelessness were a kind of gravity.
In Nacho Libre, a similar scene is needed. Nacho struggles to be accepted in the Catholic mission where he lives and the social world of the luchadores. Nacho is shown early to have some physical skill, but inexplicably, though the story seems to have carefully laid groundwork otherwise, Nacho doesn't achieve fame in wrestling through his animal talents. In matches where he should be destroying opponents that are more experienced but less gifted, Nacho instead suffers defeat after defeat. Shouldn't Nacho win some of the time?
All sports fans want to root for athletes who are good at what they do (except maybe Cubs fans). Filmgoers are no different. The audience shouldn't be rooting for Nacho just because he's a good guy. He should earn and elevate our admiration through his joint-snapping destruction of opponents. By the time the film does finally warm to the concept, it's too late.
There's a compelling story in the detritus of the wasted opportunity that is Nacho Libre. With but a simple rewrite to infuse the movie with a more honest depiction of Lucha Libre, Nacho Libre could have been great. As it stands, however, it's little more than another Jack Black comedy -- plenty entertaining and a reasonable excuse to escape the summer heat, but not something that will be remembered beyond Halloween.