It’s happened to all of us. You get revved to see a big Hollywood comedy, starring an actor so funny he could make you laugh in your sleep, and you’re disappointed. Majorly. You can see what the film was going for, but the jokes just sit there; you chuckle a few times, mostly out of lame hope, but you never bust a gut, never really get what you came for. It’s the movie-comedy equivalent of a middling date. Then, a few months later, or maybe even a few years, you run across the same movie on late-night cable, and to your surprise and slow-dawning delight you find yourself watching. Compulsively. The lead character may still not be that uproarious, only now, with your expectations dialed down to zero, you can’t help but notice that there’s a certain ineffably amusing…essence about him. Scenes that once fell flat now exert their own fruitcake logic; they may be dumb, but their dumbness now comes off as exquisitely conscious. You’re hooked. You can watch that same movie again and again, and you do.
In recent years, I’ve had this experience with The Cable Guy, Tommy Boy, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — all of which I had panned, without much mercy, in this magazine. (Sorry, Jim, David, Chris, and Will.) So maybe at some point in the future, I’ll be lucky enough to have it with Nacho Libre, a kitschy faux-Mexican idiot-slob wrestling comedy starring Jack Black and his noble, blubbery bod. It’s a movie that seems to be trying hard for that cheesy-innocent, so-stupid-it’s-smart vibe, and it represents the collaboration of some very gifted people: Jared Hess, director of the flip yet indelible youthquake Napoleon Dynamite, and the brilliantly funny and original screenwriter Mike White, who wrote School of Rock and Chuck & Buck, two of my favorite films of the past 10 years. Black plays what sounds like a charmingly naughty underdog: a wide-eyed monk in a cassock named Ignacio, who is haunted by his forbidden thoughts, like his desire to make time with the sexy new nun (Ana de la Reguera), but mostly by his dream of escaping his life of pious drudgery to become a Lucha Libre wrestler, a sinfully invincible masked superfighter.
Yet if you go to this movie, here is what you will see: Jack Black, in a curly mop of hair and a mustache that’s like the mirror image of his twitchy, turned-up eyebrows, looking like Avery Schreiber in the old Doritos commercials as he speaks in a chintzy Mexican accent and drops the occasional ha-ha American anachronism like ”Whatever!” or ”It sucks to be me!” Ignacio breaking wind, riding around the hills in his imbecilic scooter-with-a-giant-basket, or clenching his mighty butt cheeks together. Ignacio, who works as a cook in his remote desert monastery, serving orphans meals that resemble mole sauce mixed with merde. Ignacio donning a red cape and shorts, baby blue tights, and a head-hugging demonic mask to become Nacho, his secret wrestling alter ego, which becomes the occasion for Black to leap around the ring in fits of camp vanity as he flaunts his spectacularly terrible body — not just the thrusting big ball of a belly, but the flat chest and arms, the nascent hint of man-breasts, the whole pathetic muscle-free package.
Are you laughing yet? You’d better be, because that’s about all there is to Nacho Libre. It’s a comedy made by people who seem to think they’re doing more than they’re doing, which is making a mildly offbeat Adam Sandler comedy with an innocuous racist tinge of Mexicans-are-good-for-a-cheap-laugh sarcasm. The film was shot south of the border, with a mostly local crew, and you can almost taste the ticky-tackiness and squalor, but to what end? This is the sort of movie in which Nacho’s tag-team partner — yes, it’s a buddy comedy — is a bag of bones named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez), whose main activities are showing off his grunge teeth and, at one point, hooking up with an obese lady who boasts an even more crooked-toothed smile.
Black, you can tell, keeps wishing that he could just let loose and become Jack Black — which he does on a couple of occasions when he’s singing, at which point you’re relieved but also depressed, since it’s clear that the whole Ignacio/Nacho character is too thin a conceit to entertain even the actor playing him. The wrestling scenes have little farcical zest, since real wrestling is already too stylized to stylize. As filmmakers, Jared Hess and Mike White must have wanted to make Nacho a beautiful loser who triumphs, but they neglected to give him that glimmer of soul — the one that might have shined a bit brighter down the road on late-night cable, where Nacho Libre, I fear, will look pretty much as mirthless as it does now.