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There are certain individuals who just aren’t cut out for the clergy. Just as young Maria had to leave the nunnery in “The Sound of Music” to find her true calling with the von Trapp family, Nacho was meant to stray from the monastery so that he could wear stretch pants, wrestle, and provide for the little Mexican orphans in his care.
Jack Black plays the title character in this Mexican tale of digression, redemption, and bad accents. As a young man, Nacho (ne Ignacio) was orphaned by his missionary parents: “They tried to convert each other,” he recalls. “But then they got married instead. And then they died.”
Living in the monastery where he was raised, Nacho works as a cook, feeding slop to the orphans because he cannot afford to buy fresh food. But he dreams of the spandex and the status that accompany life as a successful Lucha Libre wrestler. When Nacho sees a poster for a wrestling contest, he finds a partner, Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), and decides to try his luck. They join the amateur Lucha circuit, and though they may not be the most successful pair, they have excellent costumes.
Nacho has trouble reconciling his passion for wrestling with his faith – or rather the faith of Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), the owner of the habit he is sleazily trying to get into. Finally, though, he realizes that he can justify his antics if his motivations are good, and he proceeds to expend his energy improving the lives of the children at his monastery.
All of this gives Mr. Black and the motley cast of “Nacho Libre” plenty of time to flex their humorous muscle. Mr. Black takes to the role with characteristic gusto, preening, posing, and accentuating his spandex-swathed belly at every opportunity. (The man’s unusually expressive eyebrows are an affront to plastic surgeons everywhere).
There is something intrinsically funny about a chubby man in stretchy pants, and Mr. Black isn’t afraid to strut when he’s wearing his underwear on the outside (or any other time, really). He also uses his ever-shifting Hispanic accent to full effect. Mr. Black may not be the first white man to impersonate a Latino on film, but he seems to take more pleasure in it than his predecessors. His method of leaning on the final word of his statements is sure to send many children running around their houses annoying their parents with wrestling maneuvers and bad Spanish accents.
Mr. Black teams up here with writer Mike White – with whom he worked on “School of Rock” – and Jared Hess, the director of “Napoleon Dynamite.” Both of their influences can be felt in the film, from Nacho’s developmentally stalled Pied Piper role to his potential for cult status. But it is Mr. Hess whose aesthetic pervades the film.
With “Napoleon Dynamite,” Mr. Hess established a formula that is slightly reworked here and could become a highly successful model for family-friendly cinema. Mr. Hess’s films reflect his faith, and though it is not always clear which religion is onscreen here, vaguely Mormon traces run throughout his work. Neither “Nacho” nor “Napoleon” has an excess of violence, bad language, or sexuality.
Whereas “Napoleon Dynamite” was geared toward a general audience, this film – produced by Disney and rated PG – is mainly for children. It also posits Mr. Black as a role model, odd as that may seem. As in “School of Rock,” his intellectually stilted character – an outsider with an outsized sense of self – encourages children to dream big. And he even makes a compelling case for children eating their vegetables: As soon as Nacho brings vegetables to the monastery, his wrestling partner’s teeth whiten.
Some may object to what could be perceived as mockery of Mexico and Lucha Libre wrestling, but it is clear that the film’s parody is well intentioned. Mr. Black is clearly not a native Spanish speaker, and no one in Nacho’s Mexico even speaks Spanish. (They communicate in English, only using occasional Spanish words for emphasis.) But all the other actors are Mexican and many of the men he fights in the ring are real luchadores. Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre” doesn’t merely mock the odd world and misfits it has created: It idolizes it, too.
A bigger problem lies in the meme aesthetic Mr. Hess imparts on his films. The secret to Mr. Hess’s success may be that any phrase said with enough gusto can be quoted by adoring fans ad infinitum. Like Jon Heder’s Napoleon, nearly everything that comes out of Nacho’s mouth is a quotable catch phrase. And as much as Mr. Heder’s character inspired admiration, there was also a backlash.
But even with that possible consequence, the good humor that pervades Mr. Hess’s films is contagious. Some of the set pieces of “Nacho” might not work as intended, but if audiences are willing to accept the premises of Mr. Hess’s cinematic dioramas, there are plenty of moments to be enjoyed: “Nacho Libre” contains one of the best flying leaps on film, a wicked monk-mobile, and the best method of adult baptism I’ve seen.
And beyond the hilarity of a chubster in spandex rolling around in efforts to be tough, the film imparts some real-life lessons. As Nacho says to one of the young orphans who walks in on him in his Luchador costume: “Chancho, when you are a man … sometimes you wear stretchy pants … in your room. Just for fun.”