Maybe I just don't get it. I know I'm supposed to double over with laughter every time Jack Black does one his patented squishy faces, or flexes his flabby muscles, or does some sort of glib pratfall. But am I wrong to expect that a truly inspired, gifted comedian will do more than just a bunch of hammy histrionics, and actually create a full-bodied character we can empathize with and root for?
'Nacho Libre' seems like the kind of project that could allow Black to have done just that. It certainly examines an interesting cultural phenomenon never before seen on the big screen. Black stars as Nacho, a young cook of sketchy ethnicity who was raised and works in a monastery in Mexico. Inspired by his love of Mexican wrestling, he dons a silver mask and cape and, with his new partner Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), competes in a local "Lucha Libre" tournament. He also tries to win the adoration of a visiting nun, Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera), who is more than skeptical of the moral fiber of being a "Luchador." Can Nacho live his dream of being a pro wrestler, maintain his religious beliefs and win the love of Sister Encarnacion?
'Nacho Libre' was directed by Jared Hess, who with 'Napoleon Dynamite' two years ago, went from some guy who made movies no one ever heard of to movie comedy's heir apparent to Mike Judge and Seth McFarlane. And love it or hate it, 'Dynamite' was, if not a full-blown pop culture milestone, then definitely one of the biggest cult hits in recent memory. Ribald and raunchy but also quirky and light-hearted, 'Dynamite' was original enough that I had higher hopes for 'Nacho Libre' -- hoping at least that the movie might aim a bit higher than just the groin area.
Indeed, the idea of 'Nacho Libre' is rather sweet. I liked the fact that Nacho doesn't wrestle for fame, or money, but only to win a few hundred bucks to build a better community for the poor kids the monastery helps to feed. And the rather odd brand of courtship that ensues between Nacho and Sister Encarnacion is charming and romantic, not crude and tacky. Yet somehow the film never really amounts to very much. Certainly, the Mexican location and the whole Lucha Libre is never given more than a passing glance. What an interesting subject for a movie, and if "Nacho Libre' had been at all interested in our culture's seemingly bizarre interest in staged wrestling matches acted out by men in costumes it might have been a true cult gem. The story also meanders quite aimlessly in the second half, as if Hess and his co-screenwriters Jerusha Hess (his wife) and Mike ('Chuck & Buck') White came up with a great character and a great milieu but couldn't really figure out where to go with it.
Perhaps 'Nacho Libre' ultimately suffers most from having cast Black in the film. I wonder if he's stuck in the same career midpoint Adam Sandler faced a few years back -- how does the crazy sidekick guy transform himself into a true leading man? Will Ferrell and Steve Carell have managed to do it, and Black has at least tried to expand his persona a bit with such recent efforts as 'School of Rock' and 'King Kong.' But with 'Nacho Libre,' the script often feels hampered by having to interject slapstick-y sequences and other false comic moments to appease the contingent that wants nothing more than to see Black in tights and a mask, acting crazy. And I will admit that much of what Black does is funny. But is it enough to sustain a full-length feature film? If 'Nacho Libre' is any indication, not really.
'Nacho Libre' is hitting HD DVD simultaneously with the Blu-ray release, and only a couple of weeks after the standard DVD. I'd like to say the high-def version is a slam dunk, or even offers an appreciable upgrade over the standard-def version, but inconsistent source material makes this one a decidedly mixed bag.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, 'Nacho Libre' suffers from an increasing ailment I've noticed on high-def releases -- a tendency for the outdoor daylight scenes to look terrific but the darker indoor stuff to suffer from flatness, splotchy colors and video noise. Indeed, any scene outdoors looks pretty terrific, with great depth and detail to the image, full-bodied color reproduction and a sharp, smooth appearance. Unfortunately, scenes in the ring fare less well. Colors look a bit plugged up the darker the image gets, and shadow delineation is not the best I've seen. The image can flatten out, and some noise is evident. 'Nacho Libre' still looks good overall, and is certainly easy on the eyes for the most part. But this is far from the greatest HD DVD transfer I've seen.
'Nacho Libre's audio fares about as well as its video. The HD DVD release gets a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track, encoded at a healthy 1.5mbps. Too bad the film's sound design is rather subdued, with even the fight scenes failing to come to life.
'Nacho Libre' is really a small-ish, dialogue-driven character comedy, so the majority of the action is front-directed. Dialogue is very well done, and never overpowered by effects or the very "ethnic" score and '70s-esque songs. Dynamics are fine, with fairly deep low bass but nothing that would call attention to itself. Surrounds are rarely employed -- even the fight scenes in the ring are rather front-heavy, with only nominal discrete effects, though there are a few nice uses of rear pans during the film (notably a scene with a donkey).
'Nacho Libre' comes quite packed with supplements, enough that I had to wonder if it was all a bit of overkill for what is really a pretty insignificant comedy. I guess when you have Jack Black and the creator of 'Napoleon Dynamite' on board, the minor becomes major.
Kicking things off is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Jared Hess, screenwriter Mike White and Black. Dubbed "Dinner and a Commentary," the trio sit down for some Mexican food and let the hilarity ensue. Unfortunately, there is no actual farting, which may have livened things up -- the surprising amount of dead weight weighs down the track. Thankfully, Black isn't totally "on," which would have gotten tiring fast, and he defers nicely to Hess and White to share production stories. There are some fun tidbits here, such as various anecdotes about making the fight scenes and filming on location with a largely Mexican crew, but it is all a bit more standard than I expected given the participants.
Up next are a suite of featurettes. "Detras de la Camera," "Jack Black Unmasked," "Hecho en Mexico" and the interview "Moviefone Unscripted with Jack Black and Hector Jimenez" form a nice little travelogue of making 'Nacho Libre,' from conception, to location shooting, to the largely Mexican crews to Black's "method" for creating a wacky character. Filled with the usual bevy of cast and crew interviews and on-set footage, the four featurettes run in total about 25 minutes and are presented in 480p pillarboxed video.
Two additional featurettes are a bit more unique. "Lucha Libre" probes the phenomenon of Mexican wrestling, and though rather glib and surfacey, it still is a fascinating subject. No truly meaty documentary footage or the like is included, so it is a bit like a glossy VH-1 style overview, but I must admit to being both bewildered and fascinated by the phenomenon. "Jack Sings," meanwhile, is just what it sounds like. You may want to have the "Mute" button on your remote handy as Black karaokes his way through two rather dreadful song montages. You've been warned.
Next up are three Deleted Scenes. While two I've already forgotten minutes after watching them, there is one long sequence involved Peter Stormare as "The Emperor," who will only help Nacho and Esqueleto if they perform a series of weird tasks. Rare for most deleted scenes, this one is actually interesting even if it probably was right to have been cut, so it's worth a watch.
Rounding out the package is a fairly slim Photo Gallery with production and publicity stills, three TV spots and the film's theatrical trailer in full 1080p widescreen video.
'Nacho Libre' really didn't do it for me. The subject matter and milieu are certainly unique, and I bet a more humane, genuinely affecting Jack Black comedy could have been made out of this material, if only director Jared Hess hadn't aimed to be so low-brow. As an HD DVD release, 'Nacho Libre' isn't bad, with a fairly good if quite inconsistent transfer, and enjoyable enough soundtrack and supplements. Still, I've seen a lot better on the format so, unless you're a fan, this one is probably worthy of a rent at best.