Nacho's funnier than Napoleon, which isn't saying much.

Tortilla Flat 

Nacho's funnier than Napoleon, which isn't saying much.

There is no movie more overrated in recent history than Napoleon Dynamite. Each time someone tries to explain its appeal — deadpan comedy that plays like Bergman drama, geek love that smells like self-loathing, catchphrases that drop like rat pellets — it just slips a little further from my grasp. (I might watch a movie entirely about Uncle Rico and his attempts to throw a football over them mountains, though.) Even the nine-minute short from which it sprang was seven minutes too long, suggesting that writer-director Jared Hess' febrile mind was unable to focus long enough on things like character or story — in other words, the basics of moviemaking.

So it's some relief to announce that sitting through Nacho Libre, the latest from Hess (and co-writers Mike White and Jerusha Hess, Jared's wife), isn't an entirely unpleasant experience, which is to say it doesn't feel as though it's worn out its welcome before the second reel. It takes slightly longer than that before its gears begin to slip and its jokes begin to wear. It's only 30-45 minutes too long, a marked improvement for a filmmaker who approaches the medium with the attention deficiency of a TV-sketch-comedy writer. Or maybe a little Jack Black goes a long way.

Black, tenacious in tight pants of various shades, plays the titular Nacho, a kid raised in a Mexican orphanage who dreams only of becoming a luchador, a superhero's mask obscuring his round face in the wrestling ring. The entirety of the movie deals with his sneaking out of the orphanage, where he's a cook charged with doling out black-bean gruel topped with stale nacho remnants, to wrestle with a scrawny thief named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez). The love interest, a nun named Sister Encarnación — played by Mexican soap star Ana de la Reguera, who looks just like Paz Vega and Penelope Cruz — also functions as Black's straight man. She delivers one of the movie's genuinely brilliant lines (about her favorite color).

Contrary to the film's trailer, Nacho doesn't wrestle to save the orphanage. Instead, he merely satisfies a childhood craving for fame, glory and the opportunity to grapple with masked men. There's nothing at stake except the boundless ego of Nacho, which means the movie lives or dies by its performances and gags. Fair enough: Nobody goes to see a movie from the maker of Napoleon Dynamite expecting proselytizing social realism, after all. But Nacho Libre has the cheap, faded feel of something forgettable — like a movie made in the late 1970s or early '80s, dusted off and trotted out to make a little coin before going to home video.

Nacho Libre recalls such dopey disposables as Meatballs (only without the emotional investment) and The Jerk (without Steve Martin) and most of the better movies of Mel Brooks (without the film-history flashbacks). See it today and forget it tomorrow — that's the mantra here. The movie's funny lines (most delivered by its supporting players, chief among them the so-skinny-he's-almost-transparent Jiménez) want to be catchphrases but slip from your grasp.

The whole endeavor rests on the flabby shoulders of Black, who rivals Will Ferrell in his desire to use his man tits to elicit cheap titters. Black, rested from his restrained performance against the green screens of King Kong, bounces back as though he's been released from detention in the School of Rock (also written by Mike White). Nacho Libre plays like a Jack Black best-of, down to the song he wrote and performs for de la Reguera that sounds like some Tejano version of a Tenacious D throwaway. And though some might find his Mexican accent a tad offensive, it's so innocuous that it plays like the tomfoolery of a child who doesn't know any better. Nacho's an idiot; otherwise, he'd disappear completely — like this movie does 20 minutes after you walk out of the theater.

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