Intense jiggle boy Jack Black needs just one thing for his Holy Roller shtick to work: the rapt attention of innocents. When it’s kids learning the ABCs of a daily diet of Zep (School of Rock), the balance is perfect, with Black’s mania redeemed by wiser children. In Nacho Libre, the kids are wide-eyed Mexicans. Black plays one too—a monastery cook turned heroic luchador—and you get the sense that complaining about such casual racism is grounds for a cool-crowd body slam.
Utah-based director Jared Hess played a similar game with his absurdly overpraised Napoleon Dynamite, which managed to convert tiresome, milk-fed irony into shit with the introduction of Afro-American salvation (the LaFawnduh character; Napoleon’s funky dance). Hess probably giggled over Black’s hot-tamale accent and parody of puffed pride. Does it work? Only in spurts: Black crams more twisted glee into singing the name of his object of affection, Encarnacin (soap star De la Reguera), than seems possible. And Black’s scrawny tag-team partner, Esqueleto (Jimnez), has a funny, high-pitched shriek. But even as a cartoon, Nacho Libre feels both cheesy and undernourished. Black, much smarter than this, needs to start making better choices muy pronto. (Now playing; click here for venues.)—Joshua Rothkopf