HURTLING across the screen in sky-blue stretchy pants worn under apple-red underwear, Jack Black makes a lasting impression. He's bouncy. He's kinetic. He flies into solid objects with great force. Days after seeing him in "Nacho Libre," Jared Hess' sweet, dumb-funny follow-up to "Napoleon Dynamite" (which he also co-wrote with his wife, Jerusha Hess), I kept picturing Black as a giant Super Ball. I loved Super Balls as a kid, and regarded them as the amazing apotheosis of a major scientific advancement of some kind, just as the box copy told me to. Anyway, simpler times.
"Nacho Libre" is set in those times -- specifically, the '70s -- in a monastery in the countryside outside Oaxaca, Mexico. Black plays Brother Ignacio, a reluctant friar who works as a cook at the orphanage where he was raised but dreams of the fame and glory of the padded lucha libre ring. From the moment he experiences his first, small success, however, you know he's really in it for the kids. Pursuing his passion in secret, with the help of a fey man-urchin named Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), he pours his earnings into improving the lives of the orphans by increasing their daily roughage intake, and dreams of buying them a bus for field trips. He also entertains romantic notions of marrying the beautiful nun Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), who has come to the orphanage to teach. That is, if he can talk her into not being a nun anymore.
Although, by comparison, "Nacho Libre" is a silly piece of kitsch, it put me in mind of the old Cantinflas movies, and not just because Ignacio's rival sports Cantinflas' trademark quote-mark mustache. Cantinflas was the well-known persona of Mexican actor and comedian Mario Moreno, whose characters were all variations on a penniless outsider who uses his gifts for obfuscation and confusion to get out of scrapes or get ahead. Ignacio is no wily Cantinflas, and "Nacho Libre" contains nothing like the barbed satire of Moreno's films, which merrily skewered Mexican society.
But there's a quality to Black's character that recalls a certain kind of underdog common to Latin American and Italian comedies of the '50s and '60s: the little man who is beloved precisely because he is ridiculous, pathetic and innocent, not in spite of it. His humanity gives him dignity, and his warmth and generosity earn him love. Underdog stories are relatively common in American films too, but their characters' happiness usually depends on an ultimate triumph, usually reached in a narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, zero-sum quest for success. What's rare to see, and what ultimately makes "Nacho Libre" so enjoyable, is the story of an underdog who's allowed to remain a humble clown all the way to becoming a hero.
Black is a gifted physical comedian with surprisingly expressive eyes and an even more surprising tender streak, and Hess makes ample use of it in the training and fighting scenes, as well as those with the kids and Sister Encarnacion. In one scene, he invites her to his room for an evening snack of toast, whereupon they discuss their favorite color. As Esqueleto, Ignacio's geeky sidekick, Jimenez is feral and cuddly in the most lunatic way imaginable, and Ana de la Reguera is charming as the nun who comes to appreciate the big-hearted, barrel-chested fighter.
Hess and his production designer Gideon Ponte also endow the movie with a visual flair that's rare in studio comedies -- everything about the look of the movie is appealing -- and he makes wonderful use of a score by Danny Elfman, old Mexican pop songs and music by Beck. The movie is closely attuned to detail, making excellent use of the locations and incorporating all sorts of local features. (A local treat -- corn on the cob on a stick, slathered in mayonnaise and chile powder -- is put to lethal use in one especially gruesome scene.)
Much of "Nacho Libre" takes place in the ring, where Ignacio (going by Nacho) and Esqueleto duke it out with a bevy of bizarrely attired wrestlers whose signature moves include things like slamming their opponents with folding chairs, and, say whatever you will about them, Black and Jimenez can take a beating. But the charm of "Nacho Libre" is mostly to be found in the two friends' ruminations on faith (Esqueleto believes in science), love, dreams and nutrition. If ever a movie paid homage to fresh fruits and vegetables, it's this one. And if ever a born loser looked like the winner of the future, it's Nacho.
MPAA rating: PG for some rough action, crude humor, including dialogue
A Paramount Pictures release. Nickelodeon Movies/Black & White production. Director Jared Hess. Screenplay Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Mike White. Producers Julia Pistor, David Klawans. Director of photography Xavier Perez Grobet. Editor Billy Weber. Music Danny Elfman.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
In general release.