The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Candy, Cola & Corn (popped): A Passion of the Weiss Film Review: Nacho Libre

My central problems with smart people at the present moment are as follows: a whole lot of them like the Fiery Furnaces, many of them think that Al Gore has a decent shot at becoming President in 2008, and they often don't like movies like Nacho Libre. Now I can fully understand why someone wouldn't like a movie like Nacho Libre. As Manohla Dargis pointed out in a well-written and very positive NY Times review, "plot is secondary to character," the gags are often sophomoric and goofy and the movie doesn't say anything about life or society. I get it.

However, people that don't like films like Nacho Libre are completely missing the point. There are certain formulas to comedy that will always exist:

Midget wrestlers with furry and bushy beards + the concept of Lucha Libre + Jack Black= Funny. Every Single time. (see also the epic film, "Man Getting Hit in Groin By Football,")

The excellence of Nacho Libre is a testament to these simple rules of comedy. But more importantly, Nacho Libre's success is a testament to Jack Black himself. How funny is Jack Black? Pretty damned funny. In fact, in mainstream American comedy, only Will Ferrell can hold a candle to the manic intensity and genius of Black. No one will go as far to get a laugh as and yet no one needs to go as far. He's one of those rare Bill Murray-esque actors who can get a laugh out of an audience with little more than raise of the eyebrow and a smirk.

And yet after watching Nacho Libre, Murray wasn't the former SNL cast member who Black reminded me of. Instead, I found myself comparing him to the late John Belushi. Of course, comparing anyone to John Belusi is fraught with peril. You open yourself up to a million rants about the greatness of The Blues Brothers, Animal House, al. But after seeing Nacho Libre, I fully believe that Jack Black just might be the second coming of Belushi. Think about the similarities: both of them are/were short and pudgy and able to use their unorthodox looks to great comedic advantage, both are excellent physical comedians, both are outstanding at using strange accents to get cheap but satisfying laughs (Belushi in those old Samurai Deli skits, Black in Nacho), and both are music obsessives known for performing in rock bands (Blues Brothers, Tenacious D.)

But most importantly, the two men never met a scene that they couldn't steal. Every second that either Belushi or Black was on-screen, they appear/appeared larger than life and never wasted an opportunity to get a laugh. Watching Black mug and dance for the camera in Nacho constantly reminded me of Belushi's epic cafeteria scene in Animal House, in that both of them pulled out every stop in an all-out-bid to entertain.

But as outstanding as Black's Nacho performance was, a great deal of praise needs to be lavished upon Jared Hess' steady-handed direction. It's a little early to start declaring him a major directorial talent, but Hess' Nacho work proves that Napoleon Dynamite was no fluke. He isn't just a guy who happens to be funny, he is very talented and it shows in the little details of the film. From the subtle digs at the Catholic Church (Nacho constantly tries to convert his tag team wrestling partner to the religion, while the partner resists because he claims he only believes in science, it's funnier, to the songs Hess uses to score the film (he wanted Beck to do the whole soundtrack but Paramount fought him), to the opening Napoleon Dynamite-esque credits that Hess uses, he manges to stamp his unique style into the DNA of the film. Hess isn't trying to change your perceptions about the world, he's mainly trying to make you laugh. And I respect that.

In many ways, Hess feels like a throwback to the 1980's, a time in which comedy films were the probably the only decent things America produced. Sure, Nacho Libre might not be as raunchy as Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs, but it shares a similar aesthetic in that like those great films of the past, Nacho never takes itself too seriously. Something all too-lacking in today's films that feel the compulsive need to teach you some sort of silly moral or force the plot to revolve around some completely forced romantic angle (I'm looking at you Wedding Crashers).

But rather than slavishly imitate those 80's comedic classics, Hess has a style all to himself. Granted, his technique is clearly creatively indebted to Wes Anderson's early films but yet it never feels derivative. In both of his first two films, Hess manges to do more than just make funny movies. He manages to create unique worlds. Sort of like alternate 1985's if you will, in that everything is completely different and yet strangely familiar (did you really think I'd make it an entire blog without a gratuitous Back To the Future reference?)

By now, I'm sure you've heard the plot so there's no real need to re-hash it. It's simple. Jack Black plays a Mexican friar who dreams of being a champion luchador. But like Napoleon Dynamite, plot is clearly secondary. Which is fine by me. Not every great comedy film needs to be a brilliant satire like Thank You For Smoking. In fact, in many ways, it's harder to craft a solid and entertaining broad-based comedy film like Nacho or the 40 Year Old Virgin (my favorite pure comedy of last year) that can appeal to people of all ages without being cloying.

So my message to the smart people of the world is this: go see Nacho Libre. Don't go in with high
expectations. Don't go in looking for meaning. Don't go in looking for some sort of deep plot to analyze. Go in to be entertained by a brilliant lead comic and a very interesting director who takes every opportunity to make a point in a film that ultimately doesn't have one. Nacho Libre is very enjoyable, very unpretentious and more intelligent than you'd think at first glance. If you want to feel, be moved, or learn something about life, you're better off reading a novel. But if you just want to be entertained for two hours, while sitting in a cool air-conditioned theater, eating popcorn, drinking a coke, and perhaps enjoying the favorite narcotic of your choice, you might not find a more enjoyable film this summer. Plus, I hear the Fiery Furnaces and Al Gore LOVED it.

Passion of the Weiss Rating: A-


At 6:03 PM, Blogger Sandro said...

I couldn't agree with you more Jeff. I saw this movie with two of my buddies and they both said they were, "dissapointed." Meanwhile, I was laughing my balls off. Not because it's a "great" movie, but because it was Black at his fineness--getting an opportunity to do whatever he wanted as an actor.

I was amazingly sober at this movie ...and still laughed.

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous dan said...

thank you thank you thank you. why does everyone love Blueberry Boat so much????

Anyway, I am looking forward to seeing this movie. Thanks for the great review.

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Nate said...

Jack Black get's my nod because I've seen him grubbing at the Apple Pan several times...Anyone that can appreciate a hickory burger is alright with me

At 10:42 PM, Blogger Peter McFerrin said...

Man, I was just ripping on Blueberry Boat to a friend of mine today.

Anyhow, I think the religious conversion bits are actually gentle pokes at Hess' religion, not at Catholicism. You may recall that Hess became fluent in Spanish during his two years as a Mormon missionary in Venezuela.

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Great review ... Even though I love Napoleon Dynamite, I wasn't sure about this one, but Black, Hess and White really delivered with a charming, often very funny little movie


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