If you look past its freakishly devoted cult following and its sometimes just as freakishly devoted critics, Jared Hess' Napoleon Dynamite is a funny, unassuming little film, not much more than a collection of sketches that nevertheless elicits frequent laughs and paints a clear (if sometimes exaggerated) portrait of small-town life. It's worthy of neither the obsession nor the derision it's engendered in certain circles.
Unfortunately, you can't ignore the cultural behemoth that Napoleon Dynamite became, and neither can Hess, who makes his mainstream directorial debut with Nacho Libre, a feeble comedy starring Jack Black as a Mexican friar with a secret life as a wrestler. Black and Hess have both based their careers on one-note schtick, and putting them together creates a perfect storm of excessive mugging and catch-phrasery.
Black is Ignacio, who's spent his whole life in a Catholic monastery on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican town. As an adult, he's the cook for the friars and orphans who make their home at the monastery, as well as for the lone nun, Sister Encarnation (Ana de la Reguera), on whom he has quite the crush. Ignored and belittled by his brothers, Ignacio dreams of glory in the ring and starts sneaking out at night to enter wrestling matches as Nacho, with a scrawny local hoodlum (Hector Jimenez) as his sidekick.
There's not a whole lot of plot, and what there is generally exists as an excuse for Black to wear ridiculous outfits that show off his ample belly, indulge in an overdone Mexican accent that just as often sounds Italian, and overact every single line and gesture to the point at which you wish he could just walk across a room without strutting and posing the entire time. At least the overacting is expected from Black, and the few meager laughs the film manages are almost all courtesy of one of his stupid expressions.
But the fake Mexican accent is another matter entirely, and the primary mode of humor for this film seems to be making fun of the way the Mexicans talk. Even the actual Mexican actors who make up most of the rest of the cast speak in an exaggerated manner that makes jokes out of the way they pronounce certain words. It's vaguely racist and also nonsensical, since the movie takes place in Mexico and the characters only speak English for the benefit of the audience; they wouldn't be mangling words in their native tongue.
For all its formlessness, Napoleon Dynamite had a real understanding of teenage life and small-town aimlessness, but Nacho Libre doesn't exhibit any genuine warmth or humanity. Hess and his wife and cowriter, Jerusha, share screenplay credit with Mike White, who wrote School of Rock, another Black vehicle with the actor as someone pursuing ridiculous dreams. But that film, too, had a real heart to it, and Black's connections with the kids he was teaching were sweet and believable. Here the orphans for whose benefit he wrestles (they need money for better food and a new school bus) seem like an afterthought, despite a token effort to depict a connection between Ignacio and a portly kid who reminds him of his younger self.
With its PG rating and generous complement of fart jokes, Nacho Libre seems most likely to appeal to easily amused youngsters, and in that sense it's acceptable if underwhelming. Just don't expect a rabid cult following to start wearing luchador masks and speaking in bad Mexican accents.