Who says Hollywood shies away from religious themes? First there was "The Da Vinci Code," then "The Omen," and now we have "Nacho Libre," starring Jack Black as a cook in a Mexican monastery.
Nacho's mother was a Scandinavian missionary, and his dad was a Mexican deacon. As he is fond of saying, "They tried to convert each other but got married instead." The mixed parentage also forestalls the thorny P.C. problem of having an Anglo actor playing a Mexican, although I don't recall any such gambit when George Hamilton played Zorro.
Orphaned as a boy, Nacho has remained in the monastery and feeds its orphans under the watchful glare of the monks. His meals are atrocious – gloppy refried beans and crumbly tortilla chips. But the boys regard him as a kind of mascot, and the arrival of an attractive nun, Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), encourages him. And so, in order to earn money to pay for better meals at the monastery, he assumes a double life and becomes a Lucha Libre wrestler – something that is forbidden by the church elders.
The sight of Black in stretch pants and cape as he takes on a succession of grapplers is, by definition, hilarious. As with all Lucha wrestlers, he wears a mask in the ring, but, even covered up, his facial contortions come through loud and clear. Black has the most expressive eyebrows since Jack Nicholson.
The movie, which was co-written and directed by Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite"), might have been funnier if it had concentrated on the wrestling matches. Angelic nuns and grinning urchins don't do much for comedy. By making Nacho a do-gooder, Hess defuses Black's subversive energy. You could argue that Black also played a do-gooder in "School of Rock," but the kids in that film were a lot spunkier, and Black wasn't constantly playing for sympathy as he does here.
It's always a problem when great comics decide – as almost all of them eventually do – to pour on the hearts and flowers. Everybody from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey has succumbed. In "Nacho Libre," Black is wrestling not only with his opponents but with himself. He's going against his own grain.
That said, watching Black even in a mediocre movie has its upside. He's one of those comic actors – Will Ferrell is another – who just seems innately funny to me. He doesn't have to do much of anything to make me laugh.
Black is more than just a talented goofball, though. His performance in "School of Rock" had everything – humor, pathos, gymnastics – a great piece of acting that wasn't recognized as such. Critics and Academy Awards voters persist in devaluing comic performances, as if anything that makes us laugh cannot possibly be art. This attitude is responsible for why so many comic actors get all serious on us: They want to be recognized as artists and win awards.
That surely won't happen here. "Nacho Libre" is a throwaway movie, but that doesn't mean it could not have been better. The wrestling scenes, for example, which should be a comic highlight, are poorly staged. Nacho is given a funny tag-team partner – the gangly, toothy Esqueleto the Skeleton (Héctor Jiménez) – who unfortunately seems to disappear halfway through the movie.
Mr. Hess appears to believe that to make a comedy all you have to do is put oddball people on the screen. This actually worked for him in "Napoleon Dynamite," but too often in "Nacho Libre" the actors just stand there looking dopey, as if they were waiting for their cue. The wait is too long. Grade: C
• Rated PG for some rough action, and crude humor, including dialogue.