Beneath the clothes, we find the man, and beneath the man, we find… his nucleus.
—Nacho (Jack Black)
With oh so many border anxieties currently crowding the U.S. cable news cycles, Nacho Libre is almost refreshing. Blithely graceless and often unfunny, the film crosses a few lines. On one hand another formulaic loutish white boy saga (see also: Dodgeball, Envy, Anchorman), it also undercuts that premise, at least intermittently, offering instead a vision of unregulatable, unanxious, unwhite masculinity.
On top of the perplexing, provocative humor of Mike White (co-screenwriter, along with director Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha Hess), Nacho Libre piles the self-loving lunatic Jack Black as wannabe luchador Ignacio, a.k.a. Nacho. But while the movie has single moments of startling charm and pathos (sometimes simultaneously), it mostly careens off rails into poop and fart and mossy teeth jokes. “Careens” is the key word here: while the pair of wild midgets who descend on Nacho in the ring with a singular ferocity seem just weird and one-note at first, when they appear a few minutes later, gym bags in hand while engaged in a post-match, on-the-street professional wrestlers’ convo, you’re left wondering just what might happen next with these two quirky, growling, mini-gnomes. And then, nothing. Whatever they were saying, however they were meaning, the scary-faced midgets never come back.
The primary focus appears to be Nacho’s generic saga: born to a Norwegian mother and Mexican father, then orphaned as an infant, he’s currently a cook at the Oaxaca monastery where he was raised. But as he conjures slop made of beans and day-old chips (left out in an alley each night, in a bag marked “For the orphans”), he imagines a grander life, one where his name would be chanted by throngs of fans and his face would be hidden beneath a colorful mask.
He knows he’s not supposed to have such ambition, and is reminded of his limits by the arrival of the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), introduced as a new teacher but never appearing in a classroom afterwards. Smitten, Nacho invites her to “join me in my quarters tonight for some toast.” And for all the innuendo you and Nacho might be entertaining, their eventual meeting is just that: Nacho and the “seester” sit opposite each other and crunch loudly on hard toast. After a bit of chit-chat, he announces,
“So anyways, let’s get down to the neety greety.” And with that, she reveals details about herself: her “favorite animal is poopies,” she likes “serving the lord,” hiking and volleyball. Miraculously, they share all the same interests, as well as a similarly amplified Mexican accent (no matter that de la Reguera is in fact Mexican and Black is from whatever planet he’s from). “They think I don’t know a butt-load of crap about the Gospel,” he tells her. “But I do.”
While their relationship is chaste in order to preserve Encarnación’s lovely nun-ness and his essential 12-year-old-ness, it also establishes that Nacho’s desire is primarily heterosexual (she appreciates his compassion for children, especially his endearing phrasing: “They are just niños,” he says of some troublemakers, “trying to release their wiggles”). At the same time, Nacho’s mode of sexuality, much like the movie’s other borders, isn’t strictly observed. You might say that his most emphatic interest is his own body, specifically, how it looks in the colorful, close-fitting luchador costume he sketches repeatedly during prayers. When observed trying on his tights by the orphan Chancho (Darius Rose), Nacho explains, “When you are a man, sometimes you wear stretchy pants in your room. It’s for fun.”
Fearless in the way that Jack Black’s characters tend to be, Nacho pursues his dream by enlisting a tag-team partner, a concave-chested feral fellow named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez). Together, they enter the ring each night, where they are ritually hammered. By day, they train, elaborately though constrained by lack of money or imagination, as indicated in montage that has Nacho in a rag-tag cape, tossed by a bull and hit by a melon. In turn, he abuses Esqueleto, who endures arrows shot at him, a face smeared with cow poop, and assault by a hive full of bees, all with remarkable complacency.
Straddling one those tiresome lines between caricature and inventiveness, Esqueleto is easily the movie’s most engaging presence. While the casting director plainly sought out a range of remarkable faces for supporting roles and walk-ons, Jiménez is granted enough screen time to generate something of a character. This even as he’s reduced, stupidly and repeatedly, to comically battered sidekick, not only in the ring where he is tossed and bent mercilessly, but also at a wrestlers’ social function, when his exceptionally scrawny figure is espied by a large woman determined to test whether it’s true that “wrestlers make bad lovers because they save themselves for the ring.” Poor Esqueleto scampers away, his snaggly smile frozen in abject fear, his fingers clawing at the floor as she grabs at his legs.
Esqueleto’s various abuses, tedious as they become, make a basic point concerning boyness as a set of painful expectations. While he is, on one most obvious level, this movie’s Napoleon Dynamite, he’s also the flipside of such self-satisfaction. Nacho seeks religious and even mystical empowerment (at one point gulping down the yolk of an eagle’s egg, convinced it will convey on him extraordinary, match-winning strength), and dunks Esqueleto’s head in a basin of tap water, in order to call him “baptized.”
But Esqueleto insists on his own identity, even when he appears smothered by Nacho: “I don’t believe in God,” Esqueleto says more than once, “I believe in science.” Naming yet another border the film goes on to ambiguate, Esqueleto is a wholly charismatic spokesman for skepticism of all sorts. (This even as the movie adopts a regular veneer, endorsing faith as a means to order experience and achieve ambitions.) Though it’s arguable that Nacho maintains some semblance of masculine bravado, the movie is sending up every aspect of boy hardness. The Lucha libre, both celebrated and ridiculed here, comprises the most sensational displays of oily-bodied machismo. Here the types range from the womanizing superstar Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez), who never removes his gold mask, as well as assorted race stereotypes, marking professional wrestling’s gaudy hierarchy of good and evil, face and heel (here the gimmicks include El Snowflake [Craig Williams] and El Chino [Mike Ching]). Marked on screen with “titles” that note their signature moves, these types mainly serve to bolster Nacho’s heroic ambition (yawn).
Much as Nacho wants to believe, as he insists, “I am the gatekeeper of my destiny and I will have my glory day in the hot sun,” and much as he’s inevitably granted that blistering moment, Nacho Libre is least ugly when it abandons formula, even a little bit. It’s most tolerable when it gives itself over to the floppy strangeness of Esqueleto.