Nacho Libre is a deeply, deeply stupid movie, which in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, if put in the right hands, even the dumbest of concepts can be made fun, clever, or even smart. Just look at Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which had a really silly plot (a geeky teenager falls in love with a cute delivery girl, then literally has to fight her seven evil exes Street Fighter-style), but was more than well-crafted and well-written enough to make up for that. Unfortunately, Nacho Libre doesn’t do much more than bog down the career of Jack Black—an admittedly impressive feat, given how naturally funny the man usually is.
On paper, the idea of loosely basing a Black-starring comedy on the story of Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez (a real-life Mexican Catholic priest who competed as a masked luchador—the term used in Mexico for “professional wrestler”—for 23 years in order to support the orphanage he directed) sounds like a great way to pay tribute to him. However, in the hands of Jared White (director of the no-budget smash Napoleon Dynamite, and co-writer of this film along with his wife and Mike White), this sweet, yet grounded tale is whittled down to nothing more than generic, formulaic, and toothlessly goofy children’s fare. Nothing more, nothing less.
A bad film with this kind of potential will always upset—or, at the very least, highly irritate—me more than a bad film that doesn’t, but strangely enough, I never felt particularly mad at Nacho Libre for this while watching it. Had I known of the film’s inspiration going in, or picked up on that at any point in it, that probably would have been a lot different, though.
Instead of an endearing, believable underdog, the lowly orphanage cook Ignacio (played by Black) is completely indistinguishable from any other generic “lovable goofball” trope, bar the Mexican accent. His partner, a former street thief named Steven, is somehow even worse, literally doing nothing beyond acting stupid in the name of being “cartoonish”*. When the two duel off as practice towards the beginning, the former literally smears excrement over the latter’s eyes so he can’t see, then hits him in the back with a flat-headed arrow as he stumbles through a nearby field. Are you laughing yet?
To be fair, despite obviously edging there more than a few times, Nacho Libre isn’t completely painful to watch. The film does have a warm, easygoing charm that makes it somewhat easier to stomach, and the toilet humor is fairly infrequent after the pointlessly crude moment mentioned above. In fact, before Ignacio and Steven meet, the comedy is relatively subtle (no, I’m serious), and even had me chuckling when Ignacio thinks a sleeping man is dead and, in keeping with Mexican traditions, puts coins over both his eyes.
Later, when the humor gets so absurd that it verges on self-parody (for instance, when Ignacio and Steven go up against a pair of small, Minotaur-esque twins in the ring), I was pretty bored, and often found myself counting the minutes until the film was over. Absurdist humor can be hilarious when done right (case in point, the insane comic masterpiece Airplane!), but Nacho Libre mainly just wants to throw a bunch of mindless, juvenile things at the screen and see if we’re amused or annoyed. Most of the time, I was really just annoyed.
Now, would I have enjoyed Nacho Libre more if I was younger** (and I mean way, way younger)? Maybe, but then again, I also enjoyed stuff like this when I was younger, so that’s not saying much. Indeed, anybody above the age of 10 may find it slightly difficult to get through this film. Not impossible, mind you. Just difficult.
*Later in the film, he nearly gets sexually assaulted by an especially large woman, which, of course, is entirely played for laughs (in a PG-rated kids’ film, no less). Har, har, har.
**In fact, when I actually was younger, I clearly remember seeing the trailer for Libre and really liking it. Why I didn’t try watching the movie itself right afterwards is beyond me, to be honest.