In their own way, Jared and Jerusha Hess, the husband and wife screenwriting team who penned 2004’s sleeper hit Napoleon Dynamite, changed the landscape of modern moviemaking as much as Mel Gibson did with The Passion of the Christ … perhaps even more.
While Hollywood and the press may have been shocked at The Passion’s unprecedented success, the church-going crowd really wasn’t all that surprised. After all, Christians had been telling each other for years that if only someone would make a well-acted, well-produced film that took their savior seriously, it would be a massive hit.
But nobody saw geeky every-teen Napoleon Dynamite coming.
Sure, clean comedies could always be counted on to score with family audiences. But the PG-rated Dynamite accomplished far more than providing mom, dad and the kids an afternoon’s entertainment for its paltry $400,000 production budget. It became a cultural phenomenon, complete with twirly pens and talking dolls at drugstore checkout stands. And just like The Passion it turned conventional filmmaking wisdom—in this case the wisdom that says teenage audiences will find only American Pie-esque swearing, sex and drunken debauchery cool—on its ear.
Think that’s an overstatement? Then consider: What, other than a minor cinematic miracle, would cause notorious club-hoppers like Paris Hilton to wear T-shirts that proclaim “Vote Pedro” in homage to a movie without a single obscenity or even a mild sex scene? Thanks to Dynamite’s success, studio executives started greenlighting a whole new vein of projects that wouldn’t have stood a chance 10 years ago.
One such project is the newly released Nacho Libre, yet another brainchild of the Hesses along with screenwriter Mike White of School of Rock fame. Only this time out, Mr. and Mrs. Hess have far more resources than friends in the Brigham Young University Film Department at their disposal (resources like $35 million dollars and A-list comedian Jack Black).
Black stars as the titular Nacho, a half-Mexican, half-Scandinavian friar who spends his days making indigestible meals for orphans in the Oaxaca region of Mexico and his nights dreaming of becoming a great luchador, Latin America’s mask-wearing, freestyle professional wrestlers. When the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera) arrives at his monastery, Nacho decides he must prove his manly worth to her by making his dream a reality and using his winnings to buy the orphans better food. To assist him in this quest he enlists the help of a chip-stealing, wild scarecrow of a man, Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez).
Clearly this setup has plenty of inherent comedy, and Jared Hess, who also directs, mostly makes it pay off. Once again his unique blend of awkward deadpan and over-the-top characterization produces major laughs as does, interestingly enough, a phenomenal soundtrack by Danny Elfman. Rarely has such cool music added so much to a screwball comedy.
Adult fans of Napoleon Dynamite might be disappointed to find that the movie relies on quite a bit of body-function humor, but it also delves into more advanced comedy than the earlier film. The Hesses are both devout Mormons, and they know how to find humor in religious faith without insulting religion. Says Nacho to Sister Encarnación in all earnestness, “The Brothers think I don't know a butt-load of crap about the Gospel, but I do...” The laughs come from recognizing our profane human way of thinking about sacred matters. The film also benefits from a spot-on supporting cast. Jimenez and de la Reguera fit into Hess’s world of naive oddballs perfectly. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for manic headliner Black.
Though it’s hard not to forgive him anything while he’s wearing his “stretchy pants,” Black is both the film’s strongest and weakest point. In several instances his strategically-arched eyebrow or quivering lip saves common fart jokes from devolving into schlock. But at other moments, he doesn’t seem able to fit himself into Hess’s style of comedy, which is dry, subtle and, above-all, character-driven.
Too often Jack Black the comedian overplays a moment that belongs solely to Nacho Libre the luchador. More than anything, this accounts for the film’s jarring sense of split personality in which scenes jump from showing us the quirky motivations and machinations of a man named Nacho to Black hamming it up in a straight sight gag approach.
But despite these few dry patches and inconsistencies, Nacho Libre wins us over with its innocence. Anyone can make audiences chuckle while pandering to our basest amusements, but it takes a special hombre of God to garner belly laughs from all ages while keeping it, relatively, clean.