2006Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera
n Comedy Central’s Chappelle's Show in 2003, comedian Paul Mooney made a comment that after Brad Pitt starred in The Mexican and Tom Cruise was The Last Samurai Hollywood was sure to come up with a film called The Last Black Man on Earth starring Tom Hanks. While Mooney’s joke might have been more telling of Hollywood’s history than its future—remember black-face, as much as we would all like to forget it?—he was not far off: 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, the title figure being the epitome of Japanese beauty, authority, and prestige, starred two Chinese actors. The latest entry into Tinseltown’s confusion of race and nationality is Nacho Libre. The story of a Mexican friar-cum-wrestling luchadore, starring Jack Black.
Race has been a fairly touchy subject in film—a touchy subject, period—and the basic outline of Nacho Libre’s story seems to suggest that race will be the film’s immediate problem point: how can Jack Black be expected to assume a Mexican accent and the appearance of heritage convincingly and long enough to subvert public questions of racism relating to his performance and the film’s overall creation? The film has sparked some small protests along these lines. Even so, acting is a craft of illusion; of becoming something one is not, and just as Chinese actors can effectively play Japanese in the minds of American filmmakers and movie-goers—or Charlton Heston can play a Mexican to great critical acclaim in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil—a white actor playing a Mexican priest is not this film’s biggest difficulty. The people criticizing Nacho Libre because of that simple and somewhat commonplace spectacle are not giving the film its due; this movie offers plenty of other objectionable points.
Nacho Libre falls into a current trend in film comedy: the comedy of extreme oddity, whose plots mainly follow profoundly eccentric—to the point of caricature—lead characters, as they interact with otherwise recognizable and realistic people and worlds. Speaking in generalities, this story type can be traced back through Stoppard and Pirandello to Beckett, and probably further back to the vaudeville acts from which many of their works heavily drew; if we wanted to get crazy, we could also talk about Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. But, as a recent film trend, the appearance of such extreme characters in film comedies must begin with the Coen Brothers, in such films as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? All four of Wes Anderson’s feature films fall into this tradition, while certain films by Richard Linklater—Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, also starring Jack Black—are not far off. Without a doubt, the most successful and iconic film in this assumed subgenre is Napoleon Dynamite, the film at first a series of cut-scenes about the insane and inane family life of an awkward Idaho teen (Napoleon), and then the story of Napoleon’s efforts to get his new friend Pedro elected high school class president.
Despite Mexico being 3000 miles from Idaho—both in physical distance and cultural perception—Nacho Libre shares much in common with Napoleon Dynamite. First, the director. Jared Hess, the man who piloted Napoleon Dynamite from short to feature, through the Sundance Film Festival, and into independent cinema lore, delivers Nacho Libre as his sophomore effort. Both films also feature broad, wide-open, almost frontier environments, a distinct use of bright color in clothing paired with a mostly desolate atmosphere, and close, head-on shooting. Adding to this almost ideal setup for a current absurdist film comedy is writer Mike White, who wrote the wonderfully inviting School of Rock as a vehicle for his friend Jack Black. Then there’s Black himself, the journeyman actor and musician who has evolved from playing fat and nerdy side-characters to being the most prolific and compelling practitioner of Hollywood’s fat, nerdy, and occasionally rocking heroes. Nacho Libre, with this pedigree, has elements both admirable and significantly odd. The story is solid, if cliché: the impoverished man takes up fighting for a worthy cause—in the case, to better feed the orphans of his church, and to impress a visiting nun. Of course, he succeeds at the last gasp when he has presumably realized true humility.
The music is appropriately bouncy and light-hearted, including occasional riffs by Black himself, which no movie starring Jack Black would be complete without (someone tell Peter Jackson). Even the editing, which features an old-fashioned set of transitions including wipes and irises, enhances the film’s general weirdness. What the movie lacks is an incendiary performance. Films from this comedic trend often feature stellar work by at least one or more actors in those eccentric leading roles: Jeff Bridges and Jeff Goodman in The Big Lebowski, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, the performance Jared Hess was able to pull out of Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite, to name a few. Jack Black delivered characters in both High Fidelity and School of Rock that were, and still are, watched with mouth agape. But here, Black is just not extreme enough to be compelling. He yanks his head down as he guns the tiny motor on his motorized cart—as if it were a Harley and not the thing in which he carries his groceries—and he delivers his lines with a pacing and inflection that elicits some muffled chuckles: he tries. It does not work.
Not helping him is Nacho, the character, who is also not enough of a curio to carry a comedy based entirely on the exoticness of the situation. He is a wrestling priest, sure, but his motives are fairly understandable—help the children, impress the girl—and his actions to succeed in those motives are logical: he fights, gets the consolation money, buys food and new clothes. If he needed to be a bizarre figure in an otherwise recognizable world, he is, instead, familiar and pathetic. Even that leads to a problem: the success that comes to him at the end of the film supposedly comes when Nacho gives up all that he has and fights solely for the children. The movie ties up, however, with Nacho still working to impress the girl, still using his winnings to buy bright new clothes for himself. Nacho has not changed. He remains unaffected, as does the film’s audience.
The filmmakers seem to have known about these problems, as they took pains to make sure the noise elicited by Nacho Libre’s audience was not just the sound of crickets. They fall back on fairly crude gags to snag a few last-minute laughs: the handful of feces to the face, the occasional random farting noise, etc. With these moments as examples, the film feels like a desperate attempt on the part of Hess, trying to recreate the surprising success of his flawed first film, and on the parts of White and Black, trying too hard to make a second successful comedy.
Yes, Jack Black playing a Mexican is a stretch. Yes, Hollywood has a hard time depicting race. Given the momentum of this type of comedy and how poorly the filmmakers capitalized upon it, those racial points should be the least of Nacho Libre’s worries.
Nacho Libre is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-06-28