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Film needs to be freed from its handlers

The Big Movie: 'Nacho Libre' (PG)

Written and directed by Jared and Jerusha Hess (the fellows who made 'Napoleon Dynamite'), co-written by Mike White ('The Good Girl,' 'Chuck and Buck') and starring Jack Black as a Mexican monk who becomes a lucha libre wrestler … how could it go wrong?

Yet it does go wrong, in almost every conceivable way.

For starters, it would appear that no one involved in this project has ever seen a single Mexican wrestling film, an entire genre of movies that's deliciously ripe for satire. But 'Nacho Libre' is not a satire. In fact, it's barely a comedy.

Black plays Ignacio, a monastery cook who secretly longs to put on a lucha mask and become a famous wrestler. He becomes partners with a scrawny street thief (Héctor Jiménez) and even though they habitually lose, he earns enough to buy better groceries to feed the monastery's orphans. But, naturally, his desire for fame goes to his head, so he needs to learn a lesson in humility.

There's also a love interest, because there has to be. Except that Ignacio's a monk and he has a crush on a lovely nun (Penélope Cruz look-alike Ana de la Reguera), so that goes nowhere. As with every theme in this movie, whatever possible humor might come from the situation never appears, and the script sets you up for a resolution that is nonexistent at the film's end.

The jokes are painfully unfunny, the wrestling scenes are uninvolving, the script is obsessed with toilet humor, and the premise is woefully underdeveloped. In a borderline racist move, Hispanic actors appear less as full characters than as grotesques, with supposed humor derived from their old age, lousy teeth or crossed eyes.

On the one hand, Jared Hess deserves credit for some genuinely creative directorial work on this, his second feature. His carefully thought-out static camera shots and use of quirky music - from the likes of Esquivel to an uncredited partial score by Danny Elfman - are unique and appealing. But considering that Elfman asked to have his name removed from the film after portions of his music were replaced without his approval, it would appear that Hess was simply out of his league on his sophomore effort - and it shows on screen, too.

Without a decent script, the result is something akin to a Wes Anderson film without any of Anderson's wit, turning it into a bizarre train wreck of a film. Black capers, cavorts and makes funny faces in an attempt to wring comedy out of wood, and it's just plain embarrassing to watch. There's one brief segment in which Black sings a Tenacious D-like song that reminds the audience that he's actually a very talented man. But he's a talented man trapped in a terrible, terrible film.

- Dawn Taylor

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