Successful movie comedians seem to follow an arc of initial obscurity, through mainstream adoration, to eventual dismissal. What leads to that dismissal is that after a few films, we as an audience begin to see through their routine and what was once funny and different becomes dull and repetitive. Jim Carrey’s facial stretching, Robin Williams manic non-sequiturs, the Farrelly Brothers extreme visual gags, and Will Ferrell’s petulant buffoonery have all had their peaks and are well on the way out – saved only by the occasional good script & director.
Now, Jack Black has definitely joined that club. After hitting a high with great films like “High Fidelity” and “The School of Rock”, Black’s star has been on the wane. The truly woeful “Envy”, and the awful “Shark Tale” threatened to sink it even further but a brief respite was had for a more serious turn in last year’s solid but over-rated “King Kong” – even if his performance wasn’t much of an improvement. Well he’s slipped back into the doldrums again with “Nacho Libre”, Jared Hess’s far too self consciously campy comedy that takes a one-note joke and beats that dead horse until it’s a fine paste splayed all over the ground.
Hess is most famous of course for 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite”, also an over rated film but one with the occasional moment of truly inspired hilarity, a real heart, a strong sense of identity, and a group of entertaining characters that have effectively entered the cultural zeitgeist. Where Jon Heder succeeded though, Black has bombed – never turning his Nacho character into anything more than what looks to be, ie. Black doing a bad Mexican impersonation. Making matters worse, he’s the only real character in the film – everyone else from his sweaty meek assistant to his fat orphan supporter and simply blank receptacles for him to bounce lines off.
Black’s arrogant narcissistic approach to comedy works when it blends an obvious knowledge and love for the material, with a refreshing sense humility that allows him to poke as much fun at himself as he does others. At times, most notably during the film’s few laughs that emerge in the utterly silly wrestling sequences, that somewhat shines through. A quick facial tick here or line there will draw a short laugh, and Tenacious D fans will find some reward in his musical number. The rest of the time though he’s stuck with material that, like its orphan stars, has absolutely no meat on its bones.
With the laughs so broad and the humour quite clean, it seems there’s an obvious attempt here to appeal to the kiddie market. All audiences will get a laugh out of one scene with an ultra-aggressive midget wrestling pair in costumes that resemble rabid Ewoks. Like the films’ humour in general though, it relies solely on the silly visual element and never actually tries to push the gags further because that would require cleverness, wit and a consistency of vision – both are lacking here, as is any sense of pacing.
Stranger still is Hess’s odd fascination with the subject matter – his treatment of Mexicans as a people and culture is borderline racist, whilst the camera makes so much love to the scrawny physique of Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez) and Black’s rotund display that its somewhat discomforting. Shot obviously on the cheap, it can’t boast even adequate production values to hide the limp story. In the end what buries ‘Nacho’ is that quite simply it’s pithy. There’s no thought or creativity to it – it just sits there inert, and even those who find some joy in it will quickly forget it later on.