Nacho Libre is an innocent, silly, goofy, giddy kind of stupid-funny comedy with perhaps two fart jokes too many.
Ripping a page from the history books of Mexico’s lucha libre scene, the writers of Nacho Libre then shred the page into confetti and let the pieces blow indiscriminately in the wind.
Those writers are Jared Hess, his wife, Jerusha, and Mike White. Collectively, they’ve written other offbeat hits like Napoleon Dynamite and The School of Rock. Here, they plunder the story of a real-life priest, Reverend Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, who was in turn inspired by the 1963 movie El Señor Tormenta. That movie told the tale of a priest who turned to wrestling as a way of earning money to help fund his orphanage. The real Reverend Sergio did the same, providing for a homeless children’s shelter by fighting as “Fray Tormenta.”
In Nacho Libre, Ignacio (you can call him “Nacho”) grew up in a monastery’s orphanage, personally wrestling with the attractions of the flesh and the outside world even as he studied “Gospel stuff.” Needless to say, as Nacho, Jack Black is working with material thousands of miles away from his last onscreen performance in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
Now a grown man and charged with preparing meals for the children, Nacho defends his cooking, criticized by some of the most innocent, downtrodden faces on the planet. Indeed, it’s not his cooking skills that should endure further inspection, it’s the cheap ingredients he’s forced to use on his ultra-lean budget.
Inspired by his sincere desire to help the children and maybe even impress the hot new nun on campus, Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera, Ladies’ Night), Nacho takes to the ring of the luchadores and quickly learns that even by losing he can still make money because the crowd loves the chubby goombah in the powder-blue mask.
Loosely similar to the World Wrestling Entertainment empire here in the United States, Mexico’s lucha libre scene focuses heavily on masked men playing colorful characters who prefer to keep their true identity completely hidden.
Unlike the WWE’s wrestlers, luchadores aren’t necessarily perfect specimens of testosterone run amuck. That affords Nacho the opportunity to fit in, at least somewhat.
Equally appropriate, Nacho finds his tag-team partner in the rail-thin body of a street urchin nicknamed Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez, Mezcal). Having previously been robbed of a bag of nacho chips by the hooligan, Nacho enlists his aid, confident he would be able to make his stealthy moves pay off in the ring.
Serving as a foil to Nacho’s religious upbringing, Esqueleto (his name translates as “The Skeleton”) declares he believes in science, not God. Together, the two pursue various training regimens that might make Hulk Hogan break the slightest sweat.
When the two find themselves at the wrong end of a losing streak, Nacho blames the failure on the eagle eggs Esqueleto’s mystical guide suggested he consume. Esqueleto sees it a little differently, stating matter-of-factly, “We never win because you are fat.” Ultimately, though, their winning comes down to a matter of faith.
Black makes the material his own as he reworks his trademark persona — documented in High Fidelity as the obnoxiously opinionated record store loser and in The School of Rock as the obnoxiously opinionated rock-star-wannabe-turned-school-teacher. Black’s bent for silly lyrics, backed up by air instruments, and his over-the-top posing as a member of the rock duo Tenacious D, all play into the underlying mentality of Friar Nacho, a good guy with a particularly, well… he can be “edgy,” let’s put it that way.
Ring of Destiny
Make no mistake about it. Nacho Libre is a stupid movie. But comedy is far more complicated than most people truly appreciate, and stupid in comedy can work far better than stupid in drama or stupid in action. Laughing at a stupid joke, after all, is always preferable to laughing at a stupid drama.
Take Dodgeball, for example; another comedy that was deeply stupid but that worked well as a gut-busting assault on good taste. Nacho Libre doesn’t achieve the same lofty level of rapid-fire success; instead it tends to prefer the toe-tickle in comparison.
That sensibility is similar to the slow, understated tone of Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite, which gained unlikely popularity most certainly because of, rather than in spite of, its complete sense of a geeky existence.
Here, Mike White and Jack Black keep the same “underdogs rule” mentality, but pump it up with enough gusto and faux machismo to make it a far breezier experience.
The story and its true-life origins could have provided a real crowd-pleaser of a summer ride, but the end result is more along the lines of a guilty pleasure that might be expected of Nickelodeon, the kid-centric company behind this production.
Overall, Nacho Libre is a genial enough piece of fluff that serves up bad taste in equal doses with good heart. It’s also something of a relief that, aside from those fart jokes, Nacho Libre steers away from gross-out comedy in favor of simple slapstick and laughs derived from many, many absurd situations.