By Pete Vonder Haar | June 17, 2006

Among the benefits of living in a melting pot like the United States are the cultural contributions made to our great nation by all of its diverse peoples. The Irish introduced drunkenness, for instance, while Italians brought with them the grand tradition of organized crime. German immigrants packed a love of beer and a healthy sense of xenophobia in their steamer trunks, and those from the Far East came with a love for working on railroads and opening grocery stores. And yet these all pale in comparison to the hardy folk from Mexico, who have not only taught us the joys of lawn care and melted cheese, but also their ancient brand of wrestling, known as lucha libre.

The largely inaccurate statements of the previous paragraph notwithstanding, Mexican wrestling is – in my opinion – kick a*s. The wrestlers wear masks, for starters, which make them more sinister than the HGH-addled metrosexuals populating American wrestling leagues. Also, steroids are easy to obtain south of the border, meaning many luchadores are quite probably violently psychotic to boot.

In “Nacho Libre,” are we introduced to Ignacio (Jack Black). Ignacio is a friar working in an orphanage who harbors childhood dreams of being a wrestling champion, in spite of the church’s apparent proscriptions against doing so. But when the opportunity arises to use his powers, as they were, for good, Ignacio is quick to don the requisite mask and cape to become “Nacho” and do battle against all manner of midgets and oddballs in the ring.

Writer/director Jared Hess seems to have some affection for lucha libre, or at least respect for its place in Mexican society. And as with “Napoleon Dynamite,” Hess’ sense of humor is an acquired taste, where all the characters speak in peculiar cadences and are afflicted with a terminal case of the “quirkies.” What’s unfortunately missing from “Nacho Libre” is much in the way of humor. There are no big belly laughs in the movie, which strikes me as a problem for a film billing itself as a comedy. Hess throws in a few left field gags that do work (most notably a “Rocky 3” homage) and Black tries gamely enough, though anyone who’s followed his career from the early “Tenacious D” days is likely growing weary of his act.

Hess also expects the audience to yuk it up for characters that do little except look goofy. Is it occasionally amusing to watch the pudgy Black spending the bulk of the movie wearing tights and no shirt? Sure it is, but stretching the gag for 90 minutes gets old really damn quick. The same with Héctor Jiménez (Nacho’s sidekick, Esqueleto), all bad teeth and hair, who alternates between staring in slack-jawed incomprehension, getting beaten down in the ring, or avoiding the clutches of a fat woman.

Because as with midgets, the obese are always comedy gold.

So either you find Jared Hess’ technique to be delightfully idiosyncratic, or you find it insufferably precious and horribly overrated. “Nacho Libre” is going to be under a bit more critical scrutiny than its predecessor, and in my opinion it isn’t going to hold up very well.

Paramount has also indulged in a bit of misleading marketing. “Nacho Libre” is less a Jack Black film than it is a largely inoffensive family movie. Take away the timeless fart gags and the forbidden love angle (between Ignacio and Ana de la Reguera), and there’s not much to recommend the film to anyone over the age of 14 aside from the wrestling scenes, unless they manage to down a few beers beforehand. And even then, don’t expect much.

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