High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

El Santo! Thank God You Are Here! You Must Leave Immediately! OR Nacho Libre

Some of you out there might be thinking that Telecommuniculturey has not done a lot for you lately. Those of you who are not fascinated by Maoist China (and I PITY YOU) may feel like you've gotten a bowling ball with "HOMER" engraved on it. Some of you, and I realize that this is a radical proposition, may not like Sondheim and may feel that a review of a third production of Assassins (with the threat of another when Porchlight's version opens next season) doesn't pertain to you. There may be those among you who fail to see the humor in a guy named Rob Bob doing half an act in cowboy boots and jock strap. To you, I say: "What the hell are you doing here?"

For these malcontents and others, we went to see Nacho Libre last night. We are GIVERS.

It's unlikely that anyone reading this needs a Lucha Libre primer (thank you, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the writing staff of Angel: The Series, Cartoon Network, and the native opportunism of the WWE), but what the heck. Luchar means to struggle, fight, wrestle in Spanish, Libre means "free." Look! It's 9/10 of a Merle Haggard song right there! (But I BELIEVE it oughta be sung in ENGLISH.)

It also is the name for the style of wrestling developed in Mexico in the 1930s. Although there are numerous features of Lucha that distinguish it from its European roots, it's reallyall about the mask. Not all luchadores wrestle in masks, but the gag is certainly among the more effective hooks of Lucha. El Santo (thank God you are here! You must leave immediately!) was not the first masked luchador, but he is probably the most famous, and it is safe to say that the entire masked luchador schtick rose and set on Santo. Blue Demon is even now shaking his fists at heaven and plotting my death.) El Santo the renaissance luchador started with a comic book featuring him fighting crime and monsters, escalated to movies in which he fought crime and monsters, and eventually resulted in Santo wearing the mask 100% of the time in public (He unmasked himself on television in 1984, and died a week later. Dun dun DUNNNNNN! He is, of course, buried in the mask) presumably so he could free-style fight crime and monsters.

The prominence of Lucha Libre has waxed and waned since its inception, but it's safe to say that it has remained wildly popular in Mexico. It has also enjoyed something of a revival as kitschy-chic in the US. For example: Rey Mysterio is among the WWE's bigger stars (he's also a pansy, because his mask doesn't cover his chin and push his meaty lips out in true luchador fashion) and remember our previous cultural report from Mexican Wrestling Macbeth?

Presumably this resurgence of interest is what made Nickelodeon Films (yeah, I didn't know that either; it's a problem) think that Nacho Libre might fly. Judging from the reviews, their instinct was not so good. Ebert approaches his 1.5-star review from the assumption that Jack Black is always funny, yet Nacho Libre seems to have sucked the funny out of him. I approached it from a position of extreme skepticism that I could like Jack Black in much of anything, but come on: It's Lucha! And yet, peace, love, and understanding will out: I have to agree with the heart of Ebert's review, even if I wouldn't be quite so hard on the movie as he is.

First of all, I really do think the Nickelodeon thing was a big problem. We were weirded out by the trailers: Santa Clause 3 (God help us all); Barnyard, How to Eat Fried Worms, and for game balance, Jet Li's Fearless (which is billed as his last martial arts film, wtf?). There is something disconcerting not only about seeing those trailers together, but about seeing them at 10:30 at night in front of a Jack Black movie.

The opening gag had real promise. In it, Young Nacho, having already been bundled off to the Friary at the tender age of 9 or so, steals various ticky tacky objets de culte (the cloth under the infant of prague [neither dress-up, nor under glass---a very inferior sort of infant, if you ask me], rosary beeds to spell out his name on the cape, etc). Initially, we only see his hand snatching objects here and there as he assembles the costume. It's rather sweet and more than a little sad when the finished product, in all its rotundity and ill-fitting glory is revealed. And then he runs around fighting crime and monsters. Ok, not really. He just practices wrestling holds on the cemetery monuments until he is caught and hosed down by the other friars. I don't know, maybe you have to have been raised wacky!Catholic for it to get to you, but I was willing to forgive a lot that followed for the sake of those first 5 minutes or so.

But as much as I was primed to let pass, Nacho Libre still needed a more generous soul than I to achieve a positive review. As Ebert says, it's disjointed. In part, that's endemic to stupid comedies founded on a bit that should have lasted 10 minutes tops and need stretching out to 90. There are certainly scenes included because someone just couldn't let their pet gag go. Don't get me wrong---if you have a chance to cast Peter Stormare, you should. If you have a chance to dress Peter Stormare as a crazy gypsy king, you should. But try not to turn it into one of the most boring and pointless (against some stiff competition) segments.

More than the problems inherent and dear to the genre, though, I think Nacho Libre had further complications. At numerous points, it seemed as though gross-out humor had been inserted for the kiddies. On the flip side of that, there were opportunities for more adult humor that were avoided, even though they could have easily been included in a non-kid-alienating (or R-skirting) way. The majority of the funny bits were given away in the trailer, and the romantic subplot was significantly less funny (and much more without point) than the trailers made it out to be.

The most grievous sin, though, was not enough Lucha! Yes, they got a variety of real-life Lucha stars for the movie, but then used them to little effect. I'm not asking for Master of the Flying Guillotine, in which only extended one-on-one battles between freaky martial artists pad the film, but it's just wrong to have the build-up of an elimination match and then show us about 2 incoherent seconds of each.

To end on a positive note, Jack Black was funnier and more endearing than I've ever found him to be before. There is some schizophrenic tension between his reliance on his wacky facial expressions and the fact that he's supposed to be enmascarado through much of the film, but they use his body image issues to good effect insetead. His friendship with "Stephen" (El Esqueleto, played by Hector Jimenez) has moments that are both warm and funny, and he has great rapport with "Chanco" (Darius Rose), the kid with whom Nacho would most naturally identify. The movie is just packed with characters in the background, too---it's like the comedy Name of the Rose, in fact---but even when the funny looking are used to humorous effect, it never feels mean or bullyish (with the possible exception of the Fat Girl jokes in one segment).

When you Netflix this (it's not worth the price of a theater ticket, unless it's a dollar show), be sure to watch the end credits so you don't miss out on Jack Black softrocking the audience.

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