Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Nacho Libre

Success can be a double-edged sword. For those involved in any kind of enterprise, be it creative, sporting or even the world of business, a good year brings with it praise and expectation in equal measure. For those involved in artistic pursuits, success can foster a devil-may-care attitude, and even the likes of Steven Spielberg have succumbed to it's seductive promises. After reaching the dizzy pinnacle of his success with 'Close Encounters' and 'Jaws' - back-to-back - Spielberg embarked on another over-blown, over-budget production and proceeded to make his biggest ever flop to date: '1941'. Another legend of the silver screen, Michael Cimino made 'The Deer Hunter', and this movie was such a phenomenon, he was given free rein by United Artists to make his chef d'oeuvre, and promptly bankrupted the studio with 'Heaven's Gate'. Cimino's career never really recovered.

Flirtation with box-office disaster does not always kill careers however. Spielberg reflected on the 1941 effect and conquered his internal prima donna to great effect with his next movie 'Raiders of The Lost Ark'. The rest, to employ a tired cliche, is history. As mentioned in a previous review, Hollywood loves a good re-invention!

However, the ineviable following chapter to an unprecedented success early in one's career is the 'difficult' second effort. Musicians often complain of the difficulty of following a successful first album, and many are curious to see if this may even knock the holier than holy Arctic Monkeys out of their meteoric orbit. As far as Jared Hess is concerned, he was always going to have an awful lot to live up to after the success of his first movie, the massively popular cult comedy 'Napoleon Dynamite'.

Now, if you haven't seen Napoleon Dynamite, I urge you to stop reading this blog instantly, and go get your hands on the DVD. Hess created a strange animal with that movie, but it is memorable and funny enough to even withstand repeated viewings, one of the hallmarks of a great comedy for me.

So when you have a difficult second effort to tackle, who do you possibly call for help? Why, Jack Black of course. Or, in this case, Jack Black calls you, as Hess was fortunate enough to have been approached by Black, and the idea for the movie was hatched between them.

Essentially, 'Nacho Libre' is a simple enough idea: Ignacio is an orphan, left at a monastery in Mexico to spend his days as a religious brother, preparing food each morning and noon for the orphan children of the village. However, Ignacio dreams of more, and longs to be a luchador, or mexican wrestler. After trying out his skills at an amateurs only event, he discovers that, although it's more difficult being a luchador than he had previously thought, it turns out to be very lucrative indeed. He and his tag-team partner Esqueleto (played by Hector Jimenez) pocket a fistful of pesos even after losing their first bout, and the funds breathe new life into Nacho's grocery shopping, much to the delight of the orphan kids..

So the story is simple enough. As Nacho gets further into the world of the luchadores, he wants more and more. Then, however, the arrival into the monastery of the demurely beautiful Sister Encarnacion gets Nacho thinking about whether the monastic life is for heem after all...

I say for heem, because the Me-hee-can accent is almost a character in this movie. Jack Black's over-pronounced gringo accent is not the only one in the movie, and all the characters speak as if Eengleesh is their a-secon language.. if you get my drift. This didn't bother me, and actually made me laugh on occasions, but I could imagine it getting on some people's nerves.. imagine everyone in Napoleon Dynamite talking like Pedro and you get a clue as to what Nacho's world is like.

By now I imagine you'll be close to deciding whether you will like 'Nacho Libre' or not, and a big influence on that decision will be your opinion of Jack Black. His star has been on the rise in Hollywood since the surprisingly great 'School of Rock', in which he capably demonstrated his ability to shoulder the burden of being in a lead role. Despite his physical appearance, which Hollywood would traditionally have consigned to a casting agent's trash can, or at best the category of 'character actor', Black has somehow crowd-surfed to a position where he can carry hit Hollywood movies. Make no mistake folks, Nacho Libre was a big hit, and Black is now starring in a romantic comedy opposite Kate Winslet called 'The Holiday'. This movie is about as far from 'Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny' as most chick-flicks are gonna get, but it will test the waters of whether Black can appeal to chicks as well as dudes. Let's face it though, most lads do like Jack Black. I mean, he's already a touring rock star with a band that worships at the sacred altar of 'Spinal Tap'. He's mates with Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and billion-dollar-Ben Stiller, and his success has been principally due to his personality and his talent. Personally, I think he must have more fun than anyone else in the world ever, all the time.

Black really does shoulder the weight of Nacho Libre quite well, which is fortunate for Jared Hess as he appears in almost every scene of the film. He even breaks into song in a number of moments which were more Tenacious D than Napoleon Dynamite!

The comedy in Nacho Libre is similar to Napoleon Dynamite, in that the laughs are probably dependent on you getting to know and like the characters first. However, the wrestling scenes are more immediate, and Black's tag team partner screams in such genuine pain at times that it would need a cold heart not to laugh.. These are basic laughs of the 'man being hit in groin with football' kind.. but this is no bad thing as the film has a decent enough script, and doesn't rely on Black for all the gags. Nor does it shoot for easy catch-phrases too often.

The mood of the film is similar to Napoleon Dynamite, and you may find - although I cannot verify this - that there is not one single naughty word between either movie. These are movies your kids could watch with your grandparents, and everyone would leave with a smile on their faces. I think the right word may be 'sweet' but not in the SouthPark sense. Generation X-ers, do not fear however, as the sweetness is balanced effectively enough with enough craziness to make Nacho Libre more than watchable even for the moodiest teenager. Think of an early episode of the Simpsons, when they still had important lessons at the end, that kind of feeling. Plenty of belly laughs, and a bit at the end where everyone goes 'aaaww'.

So is Nacho Libre worth watching? I think so, but like a difficult second album, you need to take it on it's own merits and understand that, while you will never like it as much as the first one (Napoleon Dynamite), it ain't bad in it's own weird way.

So now for Hess comes the difficult third outing... I think Jon Heder might be ready for Napoleon Dynamite 2 right about now, but it would probably take a flop from Hess to make it a possibility... don't rule it out folks!!

(And by the way, if you think luchadores aren't big in Mexico, think again buddy. In the world cup in Germany this summer, about one in ten Mexican football fans sported a luchador mask like the one Nacho wears in the movie.)

The verdict: warm, sweet, and funny, but not hilarious. Seriously though dude, Jack Black, like, rules.
The rating: 7/10

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