‘Nacho Libre’: Jack Attack, By Kurt Loder

From the makers of 'Napoleon Dynamite,' a movie sort of like that one, but not enough.

Also: Keanu and Sandy go postal in 'The Lake House.'

“Nacho Libre” is a movie you’d think would be a sure shot. It was written by director Jared Hess and his wife, Jerusha, whose first feature was the deadpan classic “Napoleon Dynamite.” And this time they’ve teamed up with writer Mike White, esteemed in his own right for such previous comedies as “The School of Rock” and “Chuck&Buck.” The story is suitably droll, too — it’s about a Mexican monk who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, a masked marvel in the gaudy national diversion called lucha libre. And to top it off, the star is Jack Black. Can’t miss, right?

Wrong, unfortunately. The movie is a curious misfire. For those unaware of the scruffy Mexican wrestling pictures of the 1950s and ’60s to which it is a fond tribute — films in which actual grapplers with names like Santo and Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras did low-budget battle with all manner of werewolves, mummies and vampire women — “Nacho Libre” may seem obscure. And despite the best efforts of Black and his energetic eyebrows — and some spirited wrestling scenes — it’s oddly low on energy.

Black’s character, the monk called Nacho, is in charge of the monastery kitchen; but he’s a terrible cook, ladling out the same ugly brown bean-based glop day after day. If only he had the money to buy better food, especially for the small band of resident orphans upon whom he dotes. That might also help win over a newly arrived novice nun, the angelic Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Requera), before she takes her final vows. To those ends, Nacho decides to secretly become a luchador, and score some prize money in the wrestling ring. He recruits a tag-team partner — a tall, stick-like street thief called Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) — and fashions a requisite ring costume: sky-blue tights, red cape and trunks, and a skull-hugging demon mask. Together in mutual haplessness, he and Esqueleto set out to storm the modest heights of the local wrestling game.

They’re very bad. Teams of dwarves and women are able to kick their butts with little effort. But the crowds love them, and the promoters keep paying them. And they manage to get a little better — to the point where Nacho begins to seriously contemplate taking on the reigning champion, Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez), a hulking behemoth in a scary gold mask (and, off-duty, a pink three-piece business suit). Nacho encourages his partner to have faith, perhaps even to pray. But Esqueleto is not a religious man. “I don’t believe in God,” he says. “I believe in science.” Nacho is disheartened. “That’s probably why we never win,” he says. In the end, though, no surprise, it’s faith that triumphs.

The picture was filmed entirely in Mexico, with a mostly Mexican cast and crew, and the cinematographer, Xavier Pérez Grobet, has imbued it with remarkably vibrant colors — the interiors have a warm, dusty glow. And the wrestling matches are staged with obvious affection: as in the U.S., this is a cut-rate sport, but it’s also a howling, high-flying communal entertainment, and Hess allows that to shine through without attendant condescension. There are also amusing echoes of “Napoleon Dynamite” in some of the dialogue, as when Encarnación tells Nacho that her favorite color is “light tan”; and when Nacho invites her to his monastery quarters “to have some toast,” or observes that big-time wrestlers get all the hot women “and fancy creams and lotions.”

But given how brilliantly the sunshiney sweetness of that previous movie worked, it’s dismaying to find lumpen fart noises, cowpie flourishes and buttock-based sight gags cropping up in this one. And while Jack Black’s proudly doughy, slope-bellied body is one of the minor glories of contemporary film comedy, here we see so much of it that after a while, we kind of wish he’d shape up — or at least put a shirt on. The hilarious Héctor Jiménez, with his alarmingly bony physique and his huge, beautiful, snaggle-toothed grin, gives a breakout performance. But Black’s trademark sizzle — the twisty lips, the zesty vocal inflections, the faint sense of comic menace — may be a little too much for this low-key movie: he sometimes seems to be simply mugging for the camera, and it becomes an annoyance. Is this just a lone miscalculation by a generally inventive comedian, a lapse not likely to be repeated? You’ve gotta have faith.

(“Nacho Libre” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

 

“The Lake House”: You’ve Got Mail

Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) is moving out of the house she’s been renting, a gleaming, glass-walled affair propped up above a lake in the Illinois countryside, to start a new job in a Chicago hospital. She leaves a letter for the next tenant in the old-fashioned metal mailbox planted on a post in front of the place. Please forward her mail to her new address, it says. Oh, and about those odd paw prints painted on the wooden walkway — they were there when she moved in.

Next we see a young architect named Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) moving into the lake house. He reaches into the mailbox and retrieves Kate’s letter. He looks around. He doesn’t see any paw prints. Later, on a trip to Chicago, when he tries to drop off some mail at the apartment-house address she left, he finds only a construction site, where an apartment house is being built. How can this be?

It’s simple, actually, in a madly convoluted way. Kate is living in 2006. But Alex is living, on exactly the same day at all times, in 2004. Does this relationship have a future (so to speak)?

“The Lake House,” which is based on a South Korean film that’s living in the year 2000, rings every possible brain-wrenching change on this setup. When Alex starts sprucing up the house, for example, his dog trots through a roller-pan of paint he’s using and scampers up the walkway, leaving behind odd little paw prints — the very ones that Kate is, or was, or will be talking about two years later.

Kate and Alex continue corresponding via the magical mailbox. Neither rain nor sleet nor time itself can stop the celestial post office from delivering their missives — and with a promptness beyond the ken of earthly mailmen. (No sooner does Kate slip a letter into the box than the little red metal flag attached to it pops up, and there inside is Alex’s reply.) They long to meet, and finally they do, at a party two years ago. There, they even kiss. But she of course has no idea who he is; her then-boyfriend intervenes, and the moment passes. Finally, Alex adventurously suggests that they have dinner together. She picks a swank Chicago restaurant that’s so popular, reservations have to be made weeks, even months — no, years — in advance. (This is pretty funny, actually.) Alex tells Kate he’ll see her tomorrow night. (Her tomorrow night — he’ll presumably spend the next two years getting dressed for the big date.)

Does he show up? Can you bear the suspense? We can see how a charming romantic movie might have been erected around this otherworldly premise, but “The Lake House” isn’t quite it. It’s not just some of the dialogue that does it in. (“You never told me how beautiful you are,” Alex moistly intones, in one of the many epistolary voice-overs that move the story forward.) And it’s not the clutter of extraneous characters. (Alex has a crusty father from whom he’s estranged; and a brother who’s, well, his brother; and a sort-of girlfriend who hangs around for a while.) It’s not even the bits of undigested plot logic. (Wouldn’t Kate figure out that since Alex was alive in 2004, he’s probably still around, and simply look him up in the phone book? Or what about installing a much larger mailbox and crawling into it herself?)

What finally sinks the film is the puzzling lack of heat between the two principals. Reeves and Bullock were of course first teamed in the 1994 hit “Speed” — the picture that made her a star and gave him the action-movie cred he subsequently brought to “The Matrix,” five years later. They’ve apparently remained friends. But their few scenes together here are limp and dawdling, and when they’re apart they spend way too much time moping about and gazing soulfully out of windows. Despite her unexpectedly tart performance in “Crash” last year, Bullock remains an unexpressive dramatic performer; she seems lost without a jibe or a wisecrack to work with. (It is also, as always, difficult to accept that a character played by a cute movie star would be lonely and dateless in a big city.) Reeves maintains a rough, cheery appeal throughout, but when he breaks down in tears at one emotionally manipulative point, you wonder if maybe he’s just reached the end of his tether in trying to keep track of the plot.

“What’s it like in the future?” Alex asks, early on. “Oh, we all wear shiny metal jumpsuits,” Kate quips. Now that’s an interesting idea for a movie, one that might be fun to watch. As opposed to this one, which, unfortunately, isn’t.

— Kurt Loder

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Check out everything we’ve got on “Nacho Libre” and “The Lake House.”