Jack Black, human sight gag, He Who is Not Afraid to Flaunt His Flab, sometime actor, funny man, is in a weird place, career-wise. Born of the Age of Irony, too downtown hip to get Jerry Lewis-maudlin (even for a good cause), Black is a funny man in a time when we don't trust funny.
Never mind silly.
Our funny people eventually need to prove they can do something more. Like act. Or sing (Black's faux metal-folk act, Tenacious D, doesn't count). Write a memoir. Start a charity. (It's true of musicians, as well.) We regret it nearly every time, of course, but insist on their having range and depth anyway. We don't want them to be themselves all the time but are suspicious of when they aren't. We're strange like that; I chalk it up to our Puritan roots, suffering today for the good of something higher tomorrow - or whatever.
Black is no Puritan.
Black is Black. He is proudly range-free. Defiantly range-free.
He's a Hollywood anomaly.
Though I know it's not outside the realm of possibility, the funniest scenes of his new movie, Nacho Libre, suggest there is no conceivable way he could go straight, get earnest, or suffer for his art. As in School of Rock, we watch his rampaging Tasmanian Devil routine with a fascination, even envy. When an actor shows no fear of spangled tights and superhero masks or performing with a knowingly bad Mexican accent, when his ample stomach spills over his pants while wrestling midgets dressed as lions, when flatulence is his middle name, that man is truly home.
Welcome, my dearest Nacho.
Black plays Nacho, orphanage priest, tubby cook of stale chips and wilted lettuce, product of Scandinavian and Mexican parents - but he grew up in Mexico and knows nothing else. He is like Austin Powers. Or Anchorman. He is a one-note character that requires a herculean effort (and a degree of shamelessness) to maintain.
That note wears pretty thin.
The film feels a half hour too long and yet it's not Black's fault. Like Mike Myers and Austin Powers or Peter Sellers and Pink Panther, Black's Nacho is silly in such a sincere, internalizing way, when he takes up Lucha Libre (Mexican professional wrestling, with secret identities and goofy costumes, a real-life relative of America's World Wrestling Federation), the character becomes a literal extension of the actor.
A flesh-and-blood cartoon.
Nacho is fighting for the orphans. He is in love with a nun (Mexican soap opera star Ana de la Reguera). He has a skinny wrestling sidekick played by the excellent Hector Jimenez.
The best wrestling scenes approach the grandeur of old Three Stooges chaos (but the film, rated PG, isn't quite so eye-gouging). The colors are both vibrant and muted, like a garden glimpsed behind a cloud of dust; and the picture captures how a sporting event can be both surreal and bonding for a poor small town.
If there's something wrong, it's the directing of Jared Hess, the filmmaker behind Napoleon Dynamite, the most overrated movie of recent years. I'm reviewing Nacho not Napoleon, and yet, with a limited bag of tricks, you feel Hess' old film stepping in the way of his latest one. There are the same stabs at catchphrases. The same deadpan. A curly-haired guy (Black) and his Mexican friend (Jimenez), reminiscent of Napoleon and Pedro.
The same suggestion that the film is about more than it looks. It's not. Written by Hess and his wife, Jerusha, the funniest lines sound like their co-writer, Mike White, who worked with Black on School of Rock and Orange County. (Nacho is a man of God, but his friend "only believes in science!") Hess takes the story nowhere but finds the time (again) for patronizing the homely, the fat, and the people Hess thinks have funny accents. In this case, an entire country. Is it offensive? Nacho Libre is so genial and empty I doubt the folks here knew better.
I mean, I'm glad they don't.