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Case Number 10214

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Nacho Libre

Paramount // 2006 // 92 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // October 24th, 2006

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All Rise...

La cuenta Gibron del juez piensa que esta comedia de lucha mexicana encantadora era una de las tolerancias del ahorro del verano.

The Charge

Dear Lord, please bless Nacho with nutrients and strength. Amen

Opening Statement

Like genius and madness, self-confidence and self-delusion are so intertwined as to almost be one in the same. Believing you are destined for greatness is not the same as thinking you are already successful, and wanting something bad enough does not excuse your from walking around in the real world once in a while. For mild-mannered monk Ignacio, life in the monastery is nothing short of stifling, Filled with dreams bigger than his ample belly and yet incapable of recognizing their intrinsic ridiculousness, he spends his time fantasizing about his future as one of Mexico's famed wrestlers, the beloved Luchadores. It's an obsession that's infiltrated every facet of his being and it's led him down a rather ludicrous path. In his follow-up to the comedy classic Napoleon Dynamite, writer/director Jared Hess wants to find the same eccentric heart in this story of sport as redemption as he did with his delightful dork epic. With the outrageous talent of one Jack Black at his cinematic beck and call, it would seem that all the satiric stars were in alignment for another helping of flawless funny business. Oddly, though, Nacho Libre has its own visions of mirth-making majesty. Instead of aiming low and scoring outright, the movie focuses on the pinnacle of entertainment excellence. Sadly, it only occasionally reaches the summit.

Facts of the Case

Ignacio (Jack Black, School of Rock)—or Nacho as he's constantly called—hates his life as a man of the cloth. Instead of giving himself over to God, he'd rather feel the adoration of the crowds congregating at the local wrestling arenas. Nacho considers himself a perfect specimen and just needs some encouragement to find his way as a fighter. The first step arrives when he's beaten up by street urchin Esqueleto. In the homeless human skeleton, Nacho sees a kindred spirit. The other element is the arrival to the monastery of Sister Encarnación. Nacho immediately takes to the shy, introverted nun, and hopes his skills as a Luchadore will win her over. Unfortunately, she thinks wrestling is ungodly. It makes no difference, however—our focused friar wants to grapple. With Esqueleto by his side as a less than talented tag-team partner, the pair soon learns that there is money to be made as a member of Mexico's mythic men of steel. Unfortunately, they always get the loser's purse. Determined to win, Nacho will face humiliation—and possible personal and professional excommunication—to pursue his dream. He is a mighty, weighty warrior. He is determined. He is dedicated. He is masked. He is…Nacho Libre.

The Evidence

Like a fable fashioned out of frijoles and farts, Nacho Libre is a merry little miracle. It makes Jack Black into a cuddly cartoon character, it ridicules Mexico and its adoration for wrestling without ever being racist, and proves that oddball filmmaker Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) is definitely not a one-hit wonder. Many critics didn't care for this film when in played in theaters over the summer, and some of the slams are understandable. Hess and his writing partners (wife Jerusha and Black buddy Mike White) don't go for the usual underdog narrative formula. Instead, they infuse their loony Luchadore-loving monk and his story of self-discovery with enough idiosyncratic quirks to render reality more or less moot. In addition, people who prefer Jack Black in his Chris Farley-with-a-philosophy mode of funny probably found the subtle, almost surreal humor here to be as underwhelming as Hess's previous homage to all things geek. In what is only his second feature film, this decidedly unique director works within a strange cinematic concept that mixes character-driven humor with absolutely arcane sight gags. Combined with dialogue that's heavy on both narrative and non-sequiturs ("I was wondering if you would like to join me in my quarters this night…for some toast."), we end up with a fever dream of a film, a peyote button bit of buffoonery that is never as clever as it thinks it is, or as bad as haters make it out to be.

Granted, if you worship at the alter of Jon Heder and think that "Vote for Pedro" is the perfect post-modern motto, Nacho Libre will leave you muy frio. This is high-concept comedy crafted out of limited, lowbrow elements, a visual experience that trades on Jack Black's unique baby beluga body type to cement the central tone for the hilarity. Then, like any unusual artist, Hess begins the process of filling in the blanks. Some of his choices are absolutely inspired. Just as Efren Ramirez almost stole Napoleon Dynamite out from under Heder's hopeless dork, Héctor Jiménez threatens to walk away with Nacho Libre whenever he is on screen. His addiction to some kind of crazy corn-on-a-stick snack (actually called elote and featuring an ear of the famed vegetable boiled, salted, festooned with lime juice, mayonnaise, and parmesan cheese, and sprinkled with a little chili powder) and the snaggletoothed smile he wears like a bleeding-gums badge of honor make Esqueleto an instant stand-out. But Jiménez also gets many of the movie's best lines ("I don't believe in God, I believe in science." "I hate all the orphans in the world!"). Since Black's Nacho is the icon in the making, his sidekick Esqueleto must do all the delightful dirty work. They become such a powerful team that when Nacho goes solo in the last bout, we actually miss Jiménez's skeletal presence.

Additionally, the collection of competitors that Nacho and his buddy must face becomes a master class in Mexico's unfathomable adoration for the masked and the make believe. Highlights include the classic midget marauders Satan's Cavemen, as well as El Snowflake, Silencio, and the indirect villain of the piece, the well-oiled Ramses. The truth is that many of the wrestlers seen in the film were actual (or recently retired) Luchadores, and the amount of authenticity they bring to the fights scenes also contributes to Nacho Libre's specialized tone. At times we laugh at the ludicrous events taking place in the ring. At other instances, the whole WWE of it sends off signals of recognition in our grappler-grooving brainpans, and suddenly it all seems very real. Sadly, the storyline doesn't really explore the mythos, the marketing, or the men behind the mania. Instead, the fighters featured in the film remain nondescript barriers for our hero to contend with. Similarly, the monastery means little to the overall narrative except for the fascinating, fallen-faced children who seem more like prisoners than possessions of the state. Provided to give Nacho and, by way of performance, Black, another chance for some School of Rock-like interaction, we spend too little time with the kids and way too much time with the attractive but ambiguous Sister Encarnación.

Indeed, one of the central flaws in an otherwise fun flight of fancy is the whole motivation behind Nacho's personal journey. At first, we think it's merely part of his makeup. In a credit sequence montage, we see how the young Nacho carefully plans and prepares for his future career in the ring. But when he is brought back to the truth of his situations by the monks (forced into the kitchen to make his foul bean-based meals), that angle is abandoned. The mature Nacho then appears to want the fame and fortune that comes with being a Luchadore. As he says to Esqueleto, "Don't you want a little taste of the glory? See what it tastes like? Just one time!" It's the same thing that he stresses to Sr. Encarnación during their late-night grilled bread rendezvous. But then a third act confrontation causes him to again rethink his approach to the whole wrestling idea. He then comes up with the notion of doing it "for the keeds" and, sadly, that is the intention we are stuck with for the rest of the film. It would have been better to close up the plotting some, take out a little of the middle-section padding, and have Nacho turn into an arrogant, aggravating champion a la Ramses. Then his comeuppance at the hands of the orphans would be both affecting and anarchic. Instead, we get the "must win" match and a rather routine aftermath.

Equally distressing is the unshakeable belief that many a missed opportunity was purposely avoided to make Nacho Libre less clichéd. Black was indeed brave to show off his Pillsbury Doughboy bloat to the world in numerous shirtless scenes, but the sole training montage leaves us wanting for more of his puffy piglet calisthenics. Similarly, a possible rotund paramour for Esqueleto (named Candida) gets two insignificant scenes, and that's it. Chancho, Nacho's grade-school fan and indirect conscience, is the kind of chunky co-star who deserves more, not less screen time and many of the usual people that Hess uses to populate his backdrops should have been featured instead of merely functioning as human local color. While Black gets a chance to apply his Tenacious D delivery via a couple of clever songs, there really needed to be more music in the movie. The score is sensational, acting as kind of a grinning Greek Chorus to everything going on, but without actual musical moments within the story, the overall vibe seems stifled and lacking liveliness.

Still, Nacho Libre is a completely gentle goof, a devilish dervish delight that definitely gets better with multiple viewings. At first, an audience will carry too much baggage into the viewing experience to get the full effect. They will remember Black from other efforts, Hess from his previous film, and the country at the heart of the story from all the proud, PC-inspired attempts to refashion its reputation as a Third World hellhole. Once you see what Nacho Libre is really all about, a second viewing cements what's good about the characters and the circumstances while still pointing out the occasional problem here and there. But the third time is indeed the charm, a chance to view the film as it really is—an attempt at iconic irony through the application of satire, silliness, and slapstick. Taken together with all the previous positives, you wind up with one of 2006's most memorable, and amusing, cinematic slights. Nacho and Esqueleto may not live on as long as Napoleon and Pedro in humor's history books, but for now, the lucky Luchadore wannabes belong to a unique class of comic creations. They are clever without being cloying, hilarious without being harmful. In an era which celebrates the gross-out as the height of cinematic wit, Nacho Libre argues for a kindler, gentler approach to the business of funny. While not great, it is still very good.

Paramount provides a nice DVD package for this Summer 2006 hit. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, crisp, and loaded with artistic highlights. While most of the movie would appear to be focused on the grungy and the filthy, Hess actually found some stunning vistas to use as backdrops for his story. Indeed, Mexico has never looked more fetching than in this nicely-realized digital image. The sound also offers some significant technical elements. The differing mixes (Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround) each offer a unique aural experience. In the multi-channel mode, we get more spatial ambiance and directional elements. In the simple stereo version, the movement is minimized while the songs seem significantly stronger. In either audio presentation, the dialogue is easily discernible and the score (consisting of numerous Spanish-language pop hits) packs a professional, potent punch.

As for extras, the bonus features here run the gamut from good to grating. On the decidedly down side is the boring audio commentary (and accompanying dinner) between Black, Hess, and White. After ordering their food (Mexican, obviously), they spend inordinately large amounts of time involved in unimportant insular joking that means nothing to an audience looking for insight into Nacho's creation. We never do learn how the project came about, Black barely discusses the stunt work involved to make the fight scenes work, and White just keeps whining about how everyone picked on him for his vehement vegetarianism (boo-hoo). What should have been hilarious is only mildly amusing, and you get the distinct impression that the trio doesn't really care about contextualizing their efforts. They just want to eat and then head for home. Much better are the numerous featurettes offered, even if they occasionally give off the phony funk of a noticeable EPK.

"Detrás de la Cámara" is a laid-back on-set visit which finds the cast and crew making jokes and passing the time. "Jack Black Unmasked" deals with the star's preparation for the film, while "Lucha Libre" discusses the whole Mexican wrestling universe. "Hecho en Mexico" is a look at the locations in the film, while "Moviefone Unscripted with Jack Black and Héctor Jiménez" will be familiar to anyone who frequents the ticket selling Web site—in essence, it's a comic Q&A between the two stars. There are also three deleted scenes that add nothing to the movie itself (and, oddly enough, a whole bunch more that didn't make this DVD; Hess mentions them frequently throughout the commentary) and two clips of Black practicing his songs for the film. While there's no trailer, there are TV spots, a photo gallery, and the standard studio previews. Taken together, this is a decent collection of digital additions, but one can't help but feel that, somewhere down the line, a two-disc special edition will be hitting store shelves. Perhaps it all depends on whether this version is a viable home-video hit.

Closing Statement

Nacho Libre is the kind of film that we critics call a personal preference litmus test. If you get annoyed and aggravated by the lack of frequent and forceful belly laughs, if you see the locale and the people pictured as bordering on a hate crime, not humor, if you believe that Jack Black has done substantially better in his overall career, then you might as well not waste your time. Nacho is never going to live up to your rather discerning expectations. If you can, on the other hand, accept a film on its foolish face value, if you can infer a genuine affection for the subject matter beyond what appears to be a sort of cultural insensitivity, if you realize that actors are allowed to deviate from their well-worn popular personas, then you will find many of the facets of this fairy-tale comedy to be well worth your time. Nothing the movie does or does not do can convince you one way or the other. It is all up to you and your individual proclivities. Call it successful or subpar, but Nacho Libre is really nothing more than a work of whimsy encased in a considerable amount of expectation and entertainment. You'll either love it r loathe it.

The Verdict

For this Court's coin, Nacho Libre was one of the summer's more winning efforts, and this DVD does a good job of recapturing that sunny spirit. Not guilty! Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 90
Extras: 85
Acting: 90
Story: 85
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks

• Full-length Audio Commentary with star Jack Black, director Jerod Hess, and writer Mike White
• "Detrás de la Cámara" -- featurette
• "Jack Black Unmasked" -- featurette
• "Lucha Libre" -- featurette
• "Hecho en Mexico" -- featurette
• "Moviefone Unscripted with Jack Black and Héctor Jiménez" -- featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Jack Black Sings! -- featurette
• TV spots
• Photo gallery
• Previews


• IMDb
• Official Site

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