Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nacho Libre

The first time I saw an ad for Nacho Libre, I flinched. The photo of Jack Black decked out in sky-blue "stretchy pants" with red overpants was painful to see. Normally, I will go to a Jack Black movie because the man comforts me; he often plays characters whose cluelessness carries them to wise places. He dances through comedy's china shop where less gentle bulls have been known to break things: the man can play out fat jokes in such a way that fat people actually laugh in self recognition (at least, this fat person does.) And there he was, splashed across a movie poster in blue and red tights with his belly hanging out: Ow.

Then the premise for the movie drifted to me from a couple of radio reviews. Black plays an orphan who has become a friar in the Mexican monastery where he grew up. He cooks horrible food and gets no respect at all from his fellow monks. He loves the children, and they love him; he identifies with them because after all, he is one of them. One week his life changes when he develops a crush on the beautiful Sister Incarnacion and he sees a crowd in town fawning over Ramses, the champion luchadore, Mexican masked wrestler. I heard that it was all shot in Mexico, and that except for Jack Black, all of the actors are Mexican, and most are unknown to U.S. audiences. Something in that description dragged me into the theater today to plunk down my money and see the film.

Most critics hate it. My partner in movie reviews said to me that she hoped to avoid seeing it. A few other friends have given me a funny look when I said I was looking forward to seeing it; they are going to give me some more looks when I tell them to go see it.

Nacho Libre is billed as a comedy, and yes, there is plenty to laugh at. There are jokes for every age range and taste: subtle highbrow humor like the Sister's name, unsubtle lowbrow fart jokes, and visual gags that fill even the serious moments. As comedy, it is weird and not quite right, which I think is why most critics have panned it.

I have been trying to think why I love Nacho Libre. It reminds me a lot of another much-maligned (actually, just plain neglected) movie I love, Joe Versus the Volcano. Nobody knew how to take Joe: it was weird and odd and Meg Ryan played three different characters. Some comic bits in it were terribly flawed, but no two people ever seem to agree on which are the flawed bits. Worst of all, it didn't follow Hollywood-movie logic: whenever you figured it out, it wandered somewhere else, and there were some things in it that didn't add up at all. ("Brain Cloud," anyone?)

Like Joe Versus the Volcano, Nacho Libre isn't a comedy, it is a parable, and as a parable, it works magnificently. Nacho, when we first meet him, is an orphan in a miserable job with no improvement in sight: his world is small and cramped, and the only light in it is his love for the children. Temptation enters his life in the form of Sister Incarncion and the glamour of the lucha libre ring. He is seized by his temptations and they propel him along on a disastrous route that promises to take from him the little that he has. He is a terrible fighter. His partner (who entered his life by stealing the day-old corn chips set aside for the orphans) is a worse fighter. If he is discovered moonlighting as a luchadore, the monks will evict him and he will lose the respect and the company of Sister Incarnacion. He will wind up homeless and humiliated.

Along the way, other things happen. Nacho tries out a few things, and the writers clue us in to the parable by having something we expected to be funny fall curiously flat. Comedy is divine in this film, and our laughter lets us know when the Divine is at work. Nacho eventually has insights, and what seems to be at last, a terrible humiliation --- and if I tell you more, I'll ruin it. Suffice it to say that the title is significant.

I can't finish this review without mentioning that the casting is superb, and that I hope we see a lot more of Hector Jimenez, who plays Esqueleto, Nacho's fighting partner.

Go. See it. Don't tell it where to take you, follow it where it directs your soul. Thumb's up, way up: I'm going to see this one again.


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