Writing That Reeks

What is a talented guy like Jack Black doing in this racist, laugh-deficient flick?

Ah, Jack Black. He's so funny, he could get laughs reciting the phone book. Sadly, he's not so funny that he could get laughs reciting the script for Nacho Libre.

It's hard to imagine how Nacho Libre could have gone so wrong. While it's generally true that most films starring Jack Black are mediocre to awful, Black himself is a top-notch comic performer, and with the right material, his likableness translates into hilarity.

For example, School of Rock, written by Mike White, was designed specifically for Black's talents, and it was as funny and heartwarming as that video of your elderly aunt trying to get out of the bathtub when you surprised her and her lesbian lover playing "find the loofah." Strangely, Nacho Libre, co-written by Mike White, was also designed specifically for Black's talents, and it is as unfunny and stupid as that time that Donald Rumsfeld opened his mouth and started talking.

And Nacho Libre is, on paper, a perfect vehicle for Black: He plays a Mexican monk who moonlights as a pro wrestler. That's what the elite youngsters call "inherently laughtacular." So what went wrong?

First of all, there's not much in the way of story other than that Black's character, Brother Ignacio, wants to be a pro wrestler and make love to women. Specifically, he wants to make love to Sister Encarnación. The latter makes a lot of sense, as Encarnación is played by Ana de la Reguera, and she's so pretty that unicorns routinely come up to her, put their heads in her lap and just start weeping.

So as the film goes on, Ignacio plotlessly lusts after Encarnación, and does some wrestling. All of this happens very, very slowly, and with some klutzy editing that puts a few scenes quite clearly out of sequence; for example, at one point, Ignacio's sidekick (I think his name is "Estereotipo") gets stung by a lot wasps. Then Ignacio and Estereotipo go to a wrestling match, and little Estereotipo looks just fine. Then in the next scene, he's covered with tiny welts. Hmm.

Which brings up the other point: A lot of people have pointed out that this film is racist. For my part, I'm no politically correct bandwagon jumper. I think Mexicans are inherently stupid and funny-looking, and this film is brave enough to note that.

Kidding. It's incredibly racist.

Virtually every Mexican actor in the movie is chosen for his exaggeratedly ugly features, and they all act like a cross between Baba Looey and Bumblebee Man. It's not the actors' fault, though: The script is stacked against them, forcing them to spout dialogue that's just one step to the left of the lyrics to the Frito Bandito song.

I'm not sure how much of this is Mike White's fault; he's the third writer listed. The first two are Jared and Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite. Maybe they just wanted to make fun of Catholics. As a lapsed Catholic, I can appreciate that, but if you're going to make bigoted jokes, it's very, very important that they be funny.

Nacho Libre has a total of four laughs. That's a very poor laugh-per-dollar ratio. Even worse, most of the jokes try really hard to be sly and hipstery, and when that sort of joke fails, it's sort of like watching your kid brother go to a Sonic Youth show after dying his hair green because he read about that scene in one of your very old Magnet magazines.

Which is to say, it's sort of cute and sad, but mostly boring. I dozed off four times during the film, though only for a few seconds at a time, because, as a film critic, I position my notebook so that it forces my pen into my nose if I start to nod.

There are lots of other bad things to say about Nacho Libre: Jack Black's sidekick (played by Héctor Jiménez, who does a very decent job and gets one of the film's rare laughs) keeps saying "I only believe in science," and then takes Ignacio to a mystical wizard who promises him a magical eagle's egg. It's just weird to have a character establish himself with a repeated line of dialogue, and then strangely ignore it when it's convenient for a lame set piece involving Jack Black getting a lot of yolk on his face.

But let me say this one nice thing, because, as a secular humanist, I feel obliged to try to be kind: Jack Black is a real talent. I've never credited him before, because he's either been in weak films or strong films, but this is the first time I've seen him in a total train wreck, and he just chugs right through it at full force. If anyone had bothered to write some funny dialogue for him, his high-energy mugging and do-anything attitude would have turned this into a big hit.

As it is, one of his few funny moments comes when he sings a song that I suspect he himself wrote. So I'll conclude by sending mega-props to Mr. Black, who I can only hope will get a vehicle worthy of his girthy skills.