Someday, Jared Hess will aspire to make a movie that goes a bit deeper than just a geeky outsider with bad hair, a funny name and an exaggerated accent. But not today. Someday, Hess will craft an underdog story in which viewers can laugh with his freaky leads, rather than just at them. But not today. Someday, Hess will develop a visual style that goes beyond an exhausting contrived sloppiness that drains the life out of each and every frame. But not today.
No, "Nacho Libre," Hess' follow-up to the cult smash "Napoleon Dynamite," plays like his early film only with a bigger star (Jack Black) in the lead. Viewers who loved "Napoleon" will probably find similar pleasures in "Nacho," and those who found the earlier film an exercise in quirk-for-quirk's-sake and want to throttle anybody in a "Vote for Pedro" shirt, won't see much creative growth.
Nacho (Black) is the cook at a Mexican monastery. Cursed with a wild shock of hair, a '70s porn star moustache, an accent that varies wildly from Mexican to French to Cuban, and insufficient funds to buy fresh produce for the kids he feeds, Nacho dreams of something more. In the village, he spies a Lucha Libre wrestler and suddenly sees how he can earn both money and respect. Although Nacho is forbidden to wrestle, he dons a mask, blue tights and red boots and takes to the wrong, with the help of his skinny partner Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez). And then? Not much.
What amusement "Nacho Libre" provides comes largely from Black's utterly gung-ho approach to a role he plays with a waxed chest and an assortment of silent movie mannerisms. Black makes you appreciate the absolute control it takes to appear so very out of control, turning his lack of coordination and physical awareness into its own kind of elaborate choreography. Black's approach -- flailing nostrils, arched eyebrows, undulating belly -- is a way of overcompensating for Nacho's lack of depth as a character. Even a semi-sweet relationship with the lovely Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera) only barely humanizes him.
Hess mostly treats the supporting characters with the same utter contempt he held for the brain-dead background figures in "Napoleon Dynamite." He seems to have cast extras and supporting players with an eye toward dead-eyed grotesques, like he's afraid that anybody might actually have a spark of energy besides Black and Jimenez, who gets several of the oddball lines you can expect to hear the frat boys quoting this fall.
Very little in "Nacho Libre" is funny, but that doesn't mean that Hess doesn't find a few moments of inspired absurdity. There's an off-the-wall training montage in which Nacho and Esqueleto toss fruits, shoot arrows and do everything possible to subvert the underdog sports movie cliche. There's a wrestling match featuring two dwarves who come across as either rabid Ewoks or deranged mogwai. And Black gets to shift into Tenacious D mode with a fabulously bad love song. But real inspiration is hard to find.
Shot by the talented Xavier Perez Grobet, "Nacho Libre" is fighting the beauty of the Mexican locations, doing everything possible to drain the light and natural color from every frame. Eventually, the over-calculated kitsch becomes exhausting.