Nacho Libre ranks as one of the biggest moviegoing disappointments I’ve had in a long time. After achieving unexpected success with Napoleon Dynamite (one of my favorite films of recent years), director/co-writer Jared Hess teamed up with awesome A-list star Jack Black and talented writer Mike White (School of Rock, Chuck & Buck). They crafted a story set in the world of Mexican professional wrestling. That’s a wonderfully weird idea – I’m all for comic weirdness – and I was primed to really dig this film. Unfortunately, Nacho Libre is a serious misfire. The dreaded sophomore jinx has struck again.
Black plays Ignacio, a cook in a Mexican orphanage. His daily meals are pretty bland, and they become worse when a street hoodlum named Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez) steals Ignacio’s bag of nacho chips. Although he has little to work with, he takes his job seriously and dreams of finding a way to supply better food to the orphans. A poster in town advertises a $200 prize in an amateur wrestling match. Ignacio is inspired to hop into the ring to win the cash. He recruits Esqueleto to be his partner and cobbles together a costume. Nacho Libre is born.
Although he doesn’t win, Ignacio becomes a fan favorite, so he and Esqueleto are invited back for more matches. As his fame grows, it becomes more difficult to keep his secret identity under wraps. In addition to feeding the orphans, he also wants to earn the attention of Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), who is about to take her final vows. She is opposed to wrestling on religious grounds, though.
All of this might sound really weird and different and quirky. Well, I suppose that’s true, but not exactly in a good way. Although the story certainly has promise, the execution is strangely disaffected. There’s a distinct lack of energy to the film. The plot never generates any steam; it’s introduced and then it just sits there. We don’t really know the orphans – or Ignacio, for that matter – so there isn’t any real interest in what happens at the orphanage. There are also no scenes that make us care whether Ignacio wins or loses the matches. We see him win and lose (mostly lose), yet there doesn’t seem to be anything really hanging in the balance. There should be some juice at the heart of the story, making us root for Ignacio to achieve his goal. That juice is as absent as the flavor in the meals served at the orphanage.
If you have ever watched the deleted scenes on a DVD and thought, “Well, I can see why they cut that out,” then you have some sense of Nacho Libre’s pace. Everything here feels like it’s left over. Nothing really fits together, and every scene more or less feels inconsequential. I kept getting the sense that the real movie was somewhere else and I was watching an assemblage of all the material that didn’t fit or didn’t work.
This is, essentially, a criticism that some naysayers had toward Napoleon Dynamite. It is pointless, they said. Other criticisms were that it had no plot and it ridiculed its characters. I disagree strongly. Napoleon worked because it celebrated the outcasts. We all knew people like the characters in that film when we were in high school. We all remember the really strange kid who got picked on a lot. We remember the kids with the kooky families who were the source of local gossip and ridicule. It was all slightly exaggerated but its roots were grounded somewhere in reality. Napoleon Dynamite served as a reminder that everyone – including the geeks, nerds, and rejects – has some sort of skill that will come in handy someday, somewhere.
In contrast, there is no one in Nacho Libre who you can relate to. Do you know any Mexican Luchadors? Any wiry urchins who lurk the streets stealing nacho chips? Anybody who physically trains by having cow feces rubbed in their eyes and then allowing themselves to get shot with an arrow? The movie trots out one eccentric character after another, all of whom engage in oddball behavior. The problem is that Hess and his team take too much pleasure in the screwiness of the characters and situations. This makes the movie inaccessible, like you're overhearing someone's private inside joke.
In fairness, I laughed maybe six or seven times. There’s a really bizarre scene where Ignacio scales a cliff to drink the yoke of an eagle’s egg, believing that it will give him magical powers. That moment is so off-the-charts bizarre that I couldn’t help but giggle. I also liked the song that Ignacio writes for Sister Encarnacion (“I ate some bugs/I ate some grass/I used my hand to wipe my tears”). This kind of thing may eventually win the movie a cult audience but as a major summer entry, it falters badly. There are frequently long stretches of time where nothing even remotely amusing happens. Nacho Libre just doesn’t work up the momentum to be consistently worthwhile. I kept waiting for it to get really funny and it never did.
( out of four)
Nacho Libre is rated PG for some rough action, and crude humor including dialogue. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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