Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy made amusing short pictures that involved boxing, but as far as I’m aware nobody’s ever made a good comedy about wrestling. “Ready to Rumble” certainly didn’t fit the bill. Nor does this goofy mixture of pratfalls, quirkiness and sentimentality showcasing the doubtful talents of director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) and star Jack Black. A weird, garish takeoff on the “Rocky” formula, it certainly succeeds in being different, but peculiar doesn’t necessarily mean enjoyable. “Nacho Libre” resembles nothing more than one of those odd, off-putting comedies that Peter Sellers made when his career was on the downward spiral–1967’s “The Bobo,” in which he played a bumbling matador, is probably the closest match. This movie is just as strange, and just as unsuccessful.
The picture is set in the brazenly outrageous world of Mexican grappling (Lucha Libre), with its stable of weirdly masked characters. Black plays Ignacio, a man-child who’s grown up in a monastery, where he now serves as cook (and apparently novice), bemoans the poor rations he must serve to the orphans, and is lovesick over the lovely young Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera) who’s just come to the place to serve as teacher to the boys. A big fan already, he conceives the notion of making money by donning a mask and wrestling under the name Nacho Libre in tag-team action with his skinny partner Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a feral fellow with a crooked smile whom he recruits in the street. Supposedly hilarious matches follow as Black, in blue-and-white tights and baring his considerable paunch, has at a panoply of opponents and he and Jimenez tumble and flop through a succession of losses that nonetheless pay well. The tension, such as it is in a piece this lackadaisically paced and edited, comes from Ignacio’s need to keep his identity secret or face expulsion from the monastery, from his desire to win for a change, and from the issue of whether he and Encarnacion (also, apparently, just a novice) will commit to one another rather than the “religious life.”
Black certainly puts his all into “Nacho Libre,” preening, posturing and spouting an accent so overdone that it recalls Sellers again–this time Inspector Clouseau. (One could easily do without his singing, though, which hurts each time.) And Jimenez makes a good deadpan foil, the quasi-Napoleon of this script. But the movie is just too ostentatiously oddball and disorganized to work. The ring action is supposed to be hilarious, but apart from Esqueleto’s constant shrieks of agony, it’s actually pretty nasty and unpleasant. The teary-eyed stuff with the orphans is–one hopes–intended to be a mean-spirited takeoff on the usual sentimental component in such stories, because it certainly doesn’t work on any other level. And the religious background is, to put it mildly, tasteless. The Ignacio-Encarnacion material is creepy enough, but to add further insult, the screenplay adds a repulsive-looking monk who obviously has the hots for the nun, too. And was it really necessary to put in a scene where Esqueleto gets his face smeared in cow droppings, or so many farts from Ignacio?
“Nacho Libre” looks fine–Xavier Perez Grobel’s cinematography is calculated to give everything a golden, fairy-tale aura, and Gideon Ponte’s production design is frequently eye-catching; Danny Elfman’s score goes for a magical feel, too. But in the end the movie’s tonal strangeness and adolescent loopiness come across as calculated; the filmmakers were obviously aiming for a charmingly twisted version of a formula story that would make the movie an instant cult item. Unfortunately, they achieved the twisted part, but the charm has eluded them.