No Holds Barred
Friday, June 16, 2006
"Nacho Libre," the new film from Jared Hess, who directed "Napoleon Dynamite," is, er, singular.
The "er" in the previous sentence reveals that I don't know what the hell else to call it.
Funny? Now and then. Stupid? Very. Racist? Possibly. Ugly? Profoundly. Wild? Undeniably. Singular? Completely.
The movie is a sendup of or takeoff on a Mexican athletic/entertainment tradition called Lucha Libre, a kind of over-the-top professional wrestling circuit that encourages its participants, called luchadores, to wear masks. These large gentlemen, in brightly colored, flame-embroidered, head-encasing satin envelopes (they will remind you of the Phantom or Batman), fly about the ring pounding the snot out of each other for the edification of the masses, thereby earning great sums of money. Are they more flamboyant than our own pro wrestlers, that mad tribe of blob-muscled, vein-popping, steroid-sucking personalities who do the same here? Well, the masks do give the enterprise an odd vibration of perversity (they look like porn stars of the '50s) but otherwise it seems quite similar.
The key question is tone: Is Hess appreciating Lucha Libre from the bottom up, that is, loving its excesses, its satin vulgarities, its outlandishness, along with the audience, because they are so much fun? Or is he working from the top down, snickering at the business because it represents the folk imagination of a benighted, uneducated rural proletariat who know no better?
The movie itself offers no concession to those who would seek an answer. And you could, of course, take the Mexicans out of the equation and make the same kind of movie about other disreputable forms of amusement that the masses seem to like while people of refinement snicker disapprovingly, such as soap operas, deer hunting, NASCAR, chitlin circuit comedy and Larry the Cable Guy.
But Hess does seem to find Mexicans uniquely funny; after all, it was Pedro, the clueless Mexican, who was a source of much laughter in "Napoleon Dynamite," and the clueless Mexican as an archetype seems to be the source of much of the humor in "Nacho Libre": the blank and uncomprehending mug of a Mexican staring but not reacting at something, sometimes cockeyed, always with mouth open, dumbfounded.
The plot features one American, Jack Black, hiding behind a large, bad Mexican accent and a perm from hell, and a lot of Mexicans -- almost to a man clueless. Black plays Ignacio, nicknamed Nacho, a monk in an orphanage whose job consists of fixing the beans for the kids. Beans? Bean jokes? You can see where that is going, but before it gets there, the movie extracts much humor out of the comic possibilities of the bean, in an unguent brownish gel with a few fractured Doritos floating on the liquefied but dense surface, the whole mulchy, squalid thing confined in a shallow ceramic bowl. He loves to show Nacho dropping a dish congealed with such mucilage in front of the disappointed children with a kind of sloppy plop. Okay, beans are funny -- if you're 12.
The plot also ascribes powerful sexual feelings as well as political machinations to a Mexican religious order. Again, given the ugliness of human nature, this is probably true, and at least Nacho's feelings for the lovely Sister Encarnación (beautiful Ana de la Reguera) remain unconsummated, even if she agrees to go to his room for . . . toast. Is toast funny? I guess so.
But the wrestling is the real center of the movie. Nacho, joining with a tag-team partner played by a fellow who seems to have about 300 teeth, named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) , secretly signs up for a match in order to raise money to buy lettuce for salads to relieve the monotony of the beans and perhaps give us sanctuary from all the magical-fruit bean jokes.
The movie then follows the secret career of Nacho Libre the wrestler, juxtaposing it with the banality of the monk Ignacio, who is the butt of all that witty monastery repartee, even as he tries to move in on Sister Encarnación. Oh, and also, for real yuks, for his transportation needs he drives a power lawnmower.
Black is a curious figure. His appeal is that, given one of the ugliest bodies in America, he has no shame in showing it and no repression in moving it. So much of "Nacho Libre" is indeed about free Nacho, liberated from the confines of the monk's cowl, throwing himself around the ring with total abandon. This is funny: Black is as graceless as a Volkswagen with a wheel that has fallen off, but he's also brazen. He just gives it up for the film, and the film subversively encourages us to laugh at the nerdy, arrhythmic fat-butted waddle-intensive lurch of his moves. (This is a trick Hess learned in "Napoleon Dynamite," where the ungainly Jon Heder suddenly, comically broke into dance and was incredibly . . . ungainly.) Again, you have no trouble guessing where the movie's primitive excuse for a plot is going: Nacho will lose and lose (yet always getting a payoff so that he can give the kids their lettuce) until at last he is matched against the cartoon villain, a champion luchadore in a pink mask called Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez, an actual luchadore).
Again, however, some choices Hess makes are extremely unusual. For example, he has encouraged the cinematographer, Xavier Perez Grobet, to use the most garish palette so the movie always looks overexposed and tawdry. Its reds and greens knock your eyes out. This plays up the squalor of rural Mexico, the scabby unkemptness, the peeling old paint and rotting old wood that seems everywhere. The movie seems to have a doomed gringo drunk's view of Mexico, with all the grotesqueness exaggerated, with all the ugliness accentuated, with all the sordidness underscored. It's like "Under the Volcano" for children!
Nacho Libre (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for comic violence.