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Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

Damp squib, rather than dynamite

Elvis Costello once remarked, aptly, how artists tend to hit a sophomore slump because "you have 18 years for your first album, and six months for the second." It's a problem as common among filmmakers as musicians. The examples are many -- think of Dennis Hopper ("The Last Movie") or Kevin Smith ("Mall Rats") -- but let's turn this week to director Jared Hess.

Nacho Libre Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Jack Black in "Nacho Libre" (c) 2005 PARAMOUNT STUDIOS

Director: Jared Hess
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Nov. 3, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Hess hit the indie-movie jackpot when his no-stars, no-budget debut, "Napoleon Dynamite" ("Bus Otoko" in Japan) grossed over $40 million at the U.S. box office. "Napoleon Dynamite" was an off-beat comic portrait of a mid-Western nerd, and what set the film apart was the fact that Hess obviously had a heap of firsthand experience with his subject. (And an unforgettable embodiment of geekiness in his lead actor, Jon Heder.) It was the details -- like the big moon boots, or constant references to role-playing games -- that made the humor so pungent.

So, 25 years for his first movie, and 12 months for his second, "Nacho Libre," which opens this weekend. It's easy to see how various Hollywood suits put two and two together, and wound up deciding that Mexico would be the next move for Idaho spud-boy Hess. "Nacho Libre" is a comedy set in the world of Mexican pro wrestling, whose masked luchadores look a bit dorky to begin with. The film's lead character, Nacho, a Catholic friar who dreams of wrestling, is about as much of a loser/underdog as Napoleon was. Finally, the script came attached with actor Jack Black ("School Of Rock"), who's about the closest you can get to nerdy in Hollywood. (Black famously played a record-store otaku in "High Fidelity.")

And yet, the sum of the parts doesn't add up to much more than a fairly bland Hollywood comedy, the sort of flick that makes a good rental choice for a Saturday night of massive beer consumption. It also, surprisingly, isn't a bad choice for the kids, since it's naively innocent and mostly free of the toilet and gross-out humor that drives so many comedies these days.

Black, sporting a curly moptop and "manly" mustache, plays Ignacio, an orphan who was raised in a Catholic monastery and remains there as a much put-upon cook. Ignacio has dreamed of being a wrestler since his youth but has been repeatedly told that it's "ungodly." (The film's a little unclear as to why.) Tired of being a peon, and motivated by his crush on a beautiful nun, Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), Ignacio dons a mask and enters the ring using the name Nacho.

Though he gets his butt kicked at first, Nacho trains with a feral street kid he meets named Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), and the two tag team against all sorts of masked men, and even a pair of Ewok-like dwarves. They still lose, but they get paid for fighting, and Nacho is happy to use his money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for the orphans at the monastery. The plot builds around Nacho's need to keep his identity secret, and his desire to take on top wrestler Ramses for a big cash prize.

The fight scenes are generally done as slapstick, though they're no more over-the-top than actual lucha libre (Mexican freestyle wrestling) fights. The film does occasionally take time off from the cow-pies-in-the-face bits to drop in a clever line or two. The best is perhaps when Nacho, completely strait-faced, asks Esqueleto: "Have you ever had feelings for a nun?"

Black is generally pretty good at physical comedy, and a scene near the end where he breaks into a spontaneous love song for Encarnacion is truly hilarious, easily out-doing Bill Murray's tuneless rendition of "All Of This" (in "Lost In Translation") to become The Worst On-Screen Song Ever. His south-of-the-border accent, however, is not so "deeleeshus" and starts to grate after a while when you realize bad English pronunciation, masked wrestlers, and -- of course -- the bad old diarrhea jokes are the only concessions the film makes to the idea that this story is taking place in Mexico. Where "Napoleon Dynamite" was full of detail, and sharp, informed satire, "Nacho Libre" is the opposite -- all broad strokes and generalities. What's missing is the spice of knowing a milieu inside out, and breathing life into it.

While it's not impossible for a gringo to make a truly Mexicano film -- try Sam Peckinpah's "Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia," or Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada" -- director Hess obviously needed to spend more time out of Idaho before making his second film.

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