Napoleon Dynamite was an amusing but overrated comedy that felt like Jim Jarmusch crossed with John Hughes. Filled with more blank-faced dorks than a Babylon 5 convention, writer-director Jared Hess's indie hit had enough quotable laugh lines to spark a rabid cult of fans but lacked two fundamental traits of good filmmaking: character and story.
For his Hollywood follow-up, Hess meshes his studied stupidity with Jack Black with mixed results. Though the script (written by the director, Mike White and Jerusha Hess, Jared's wife) has a reasonably developed main character and a few laughs, it runs twice as long as its premise can be sustained.
Black is Ignacio, an impoverished monk who cooks horrible meals for a Mexican orphanage and dreams of one day becoming a luchadore, a masked wrestler. When he discovers he can earn enough money to feed his malnourished orphans by fighting in the ring, Ignacio teams up with an emaciated thief named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) to take on an endless succession of freakish foes. But the church considers wrestling a sin, and Ignacio must wrestle under the pseudonym of "Nacho."
The redundant script assumes that the concept of Jack Black as a Mexican wrestler is hilarious enough to fill 90 minutes. Nearly half the film revolves around Ignacio sneaking out of the orphanage to compete in barely choreographed Three Stooges-like wrestling matches. Ultimately, your enjoyment will depend on how much the sight of Jack Black in stretchy pants tickles your funny bone. Much of it plays like a regurgitation of the actor's greatest hits. Arching his eyebrows and jiggling his man-boobs more shamelessly than Will Farrell, Black indulges in his trademark mugging and clownish bravado all with a silly pseudo-Mexican accent. But Black does squeeze out a few hearty laughs, even sneaking in an overwrought ballad that recalls his work in Tenacious D.
But Hess's deadpan instincts are a poor match for the actor's hyperbolic energy. The director struggles to keep up with his kinetic star, filling the film with farts, gulps, wedgies and fat ladies, but ends up lowering the bar on an already lowbrow affair. Occasionally Hess finds the right comic tone as in a scene where Ignacio and his love interest, Sister Encarnación (Mexican soap actress Ana de la Reguera), share a meal of toast but mostly he falls back on shots of expressionless oddballs to provide his visual punch lines.
Ultimately, Nacho Libre demands to be directed by someone who can embrace the ridiculous. Hess fails to create the kind of offbeat alternate reality Tim Burton succeeded with in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure because he isn't inventive enough a filmmaker to sell Nacho Libre's inherent silliness; Hess revels in the ironic, not the absurd.
If you're not a fan of Jack Black, don't subject yourself to this. But if you delight in the actor's rambunctious tomfoolery, you'll find this to be the quintessential cotton candy movie experience: sweet, fun and gone seconds after it hits your taste buds.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.