There were some savage reviews of Nacho Libre. And I can understand that. Wrestling fans probably thought it mocked (or misrepresented or under-represented) the sport, comedy fans probably thought that it was not funny, fans of the director’s first film (Napoleon Dynamite) perhaps saw it as too much of an unrelated curve-ball; sure it’s deadpan, but it’s not instantly quotable as Dynamite most certainly was. And fans of Jack Black might have wondered what he was doing running around in silly little strides, making love to elongated syllables as they leave his lips via an intentionally sketchy Spanish accent and not getting to shout and be loud as he so often does in films.
But I reckon Nacho Libre is an excellent film: hilarious, baffling and brilliant. It is, most importantly, a vehicle for a virtuoso comedic performance by Jack Black. As the cook in a Mexican monastery, raised as an orphan and now helping to look after the next batch of orphaned children, Black is subdued and relies on a set of interesting facial expressions (his curly mop of hair and moustache help) to provide much of his comedy rather than funny lines and screaming loudly. He does get to sing though – twice – so Tenacious D fans would have enjoyed those moments; particularly his lovely love song, replete with hilarious poses.
It’s hard to pin down, beyond that, what makes this a virtuoso vehicle for Black, but like The Party for Peter Sellers, or, more recently, Cable Guy for Jim Carrey, Nacho Libre seems to exist for its leading actor. Funny that he was the third choice for the main part. Sometimes actors don’t chose parts, the parts chose them I guess? Incidentally, Carrey was offered the role and turned it down because of his love for pro-wrestling; he didn’t want to take part in it if he thought his favourite sport would be the subject of ridicule. At any rate, Carrey’s loss is our gain; Jack Black owns this role from curtain to curtain.
And Jared Hess is far too sincere to poke too much fun at wrestling – besides, any fan of pro-wrestling (both the sport and entertainment factions) knows that it is a pastime that pokes fun at itself. Often.
The film’s earnest tone is one of its trump-cards, this is a comedy without jokes; there are no set-pieces, no amusing one-liners, no obvious gimmicks, beyond Jack Black dressing as a masked wrestler and exposing his considerable girth, running into clotheslines, screaming as midget wrestlers bite him and struggling to conceal his fight for what’s right.
Nacho, Black’s character, must wrestle as a luchador to earn money to buy better food for the orphanage; he must conceal his true identity (Ignacio) because wrestling is frowned upon in his world. His tag team partner deadpans that he “believes in science”, so he can go unmasked.
This might not convince many people of this movie’s gold – but I loved it. I laughed the whole way through, every time Jack Black was on screen I found some little twitch or movement funny; I loved that his fairly useless tag-team partner shrieked wildly every time he was in the ring and I saw some great subtle digs at the reverence with which wrestlers are treated. In the film, the lucha libre star is Ramses, played by real-life Mexican wrestler Cesar Gonzalez – he always wears his mask. Strolling between venues he’s spotted signing autographs in a pink suit with his gold wrestling mask still on. It’s utterly absurd to any non-wrestling fan – but Mexican wrestling is about honour, losing the mask is the ultimate sign of dishonour, secrecy is crucial.
The actual wrestling in the film has been mocked too, but that’s not the point of the movie. Or it’s part of the fun anyway.
Nacho Libre is more than just a wrestling pisstake anyway. It happens to be a quirky, almost surreal, inspired meditation on deadpan, sincere, earnest comedy – a type of unique non-comedy masquerading, as it were, in the ring of humour. Prancing around inside the squared-circle of laughs without a set routine.
I first saw it in a movie theatre in Sydney. We were over for the weekend. My wife had a work interview – I was coasting. Met up with a mate. Beautiful day in Sydney. We went straight to a screening of Nacho Libre. Opening day. People mocked us for going to see the film. I got a bit of a third degree over going to the movies in Sydney – it was a lovely day I should have done anything else. Fuck off. I saw a film I was looking forward to seeing – and I loved it.
I’m sure almost everyone hated the film. And hey, it’s not Cable Guy. But I still really dig it. Jack Black’s finest role – until the recent Bernie.
And a better film than Napoleon Dynamite.
Click here to watch the film’s trailer