2½ stars (out of four)
In the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink," a Broadway playwright grapples with his premier screenwriting assignment, "The Burly Man." The studio head tells Fink he should dream up a relationship for his protagonist, either with an orphan or with a dame.
"Nacho Libre" is "The Burly Man" with Jack Black in the Wallace Beery role. The film is easy to take and easy to forget, even with Black running around Oaxaca in turquoise wrestling tights.
He plays Ignacio, the hapless biracial cook (half Scandinavian, half Mexican, with dialect guidance provided by Ricardo Montalban) at a monastery housing a gaggle of orphan boys. To finance better meals and the occasional salad for the orphans while pursuing his dream of becoming a luchador -- his signature wrestling move is called "the Anaconda squeeze" -- Ignacio, also known as Nacho, joins up with a toothy street man-urchin called Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez) and enters the ring.
Sounds like a rollicker, no? Actually, no. "Nacho Libre" has a sweet disposition, especially for a wrestling picture. It's mild and fairly static, too, neither of which is as nice a trait as "sweet." For every payoff -- when Black sings his love song about the nun he loves, Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), the audience eats it up, and the Tenacious D frontman and his eyebrows are fully, finally unleashed -- there's a scene lacking comic punctuation or the right button.
Two contradictory aesthetics are at work here, the deadpan and the body-slam. Jared Hess, who also directed, and his wife, Jerusha Hess, co-wrote "Nacho Libre" with Mike White. The Hesses created "Napoleon Dynamite," one of the most lucrative comic indies in years, a film that refreshed the revenge-of-the-nerd comic genre by blanching out and abstracting adolescent human behavior so that everything seemed stilted, heightened, of this world yet in its own drab (and funny) bubble.
Hess' direction of "Nacho Libre" favors the same visual approach, which works less well here. Over and over the actors deliver their lines (usually to an offscreen co-star, just over the audience's shoulder) before a fixed camera, surrounded by a second or two of dead air. Black and company reportedly reshot the climactic wrestling match a few months ago, and you can tell: It's practically the only time the camera actually moves, and when Nacho finally takes his eagle's-flight leap out of the ring, it's pretty cool.
Most of the time the deadpan tone knocks heads with all the head-banging, chair-throwing luchador action. The mixture feels uncertain, and it's too bad performers on the order of Culture Clash veteran Richard Montoya (playing a sniveling monk with a Cantinflas moustache) didn't get more and better jokes. Still, it's unusual to see any studio comedy erring on the side of peculiarity. "Nacho Libre" may settle for too little, but at least it isn't a miserable high-concept vanity project. You'll have to wait a week for one of those.
Directed by Jared Hess; screenplay by Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess and Mike White; cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet; edited by Billy Weber; production design by Gideon Ponte; music by Danny Elfman; produced by White, Jack Black, Julia Pistor and David Klawans. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, June 16. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: PG (some rough action and crude humor including dialogue).
Ignacio -- Jack Black
Esqueleto -- Hector Jimenez
Sister Encarnacion -- Ana de la Reguera
Guillermo -- Richard MontoyaCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times