Jack Black's priest-turned-Mexican-wrestler in Nacho Libre is well on his way to middle age, but he's ultimately no more of an adult than Jon Heder's iconic spaz from Napoleon Dynamite. Though still only in his 20s, Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite co-writer/director Jared Hess never seems to have evolved beyond a middle-school mentality, and his films resemble meticulously assembled scrapbooks of his pet obsessions. In Napoleon Dynamite, he lingered lovingly over the geekiest recesses of high-school loserdom. In Nacho Libre, he sticks Jack Black in ill-fitting tights and juxtaposes Catholic iconography with the gaudy spectacle of Mexican wrestling. But by making Black a humble, abashed servant of the Lord, he's tamed his anarchic, wild-man energy. Hess' family-friendly, God-fearing, Nickelodeon-sponsored Libre leaves Hess' reputation as a nice Mormon fellow intact, but Nacho could definitely benefit from less godliness and more demonic power.
Black, who also produced the film alongside co-screenwriter Mike White, stars as a long-suffering monk forced to hide his nascent wrestling career from his disapproving monastery colleagues. Héctor Jiménez co-stars as Black's tag-team partner, a nearly feral street youth who, in the film's sharpest gag, professes his preference for science over religion to his horrified ring-mate.
If nothing else, Hess seems intent on proving that lowbrow American slapstick comedies can be as slow and deliberate as the films of Robert Bresson. Like Dynamite, Libre moves at a sleepy snail's pace, crawling from one botched setpiece to another with all the energy of a funeral dirge. A sprightly soundtrack keeps the film from lapsing into a coma, but Hess' strangely airless comedy feels more storyboarded than directed. Not even Black's outsized charisma can keep Nacho Libre's one-joke premise from running out of gas early on, and Hess is far too reliant on gags involving fat people in too-tight clothing and the gargoyle-like visages of bit players. How can any comedy with Jack Black as a Mexican wrestler not be gut-bustingly hilarious? Nacho Libre provides an all-too-convincing answer.