"Ooh, pro wrestling from Mexico. You know, down there, it's a real sport!" So observed the great sage Homer Simpson. And in a sense, the great donut devourer is right. Not that lucha libre is a truly competitive activity, but it's governed by strict laws and traditions. Indeed, Mexican wrestling has just enough respectability to make it a dodgy subject for a broad American comedy movie.
Hopefully the likes of El Dandy, Super Crazy and Lizmark Jnr (great luchadores to a man) will find plenty to like about Nacho Libre. For one thing, the film stars a number of great Mexican wrestlers such as the mighty Silver King. For another, Jared Hess's picture respects not only lucha libre law but also celebrates the distinct style of acrobatic wrestling loved by Mexicans. And best of all, while the comedy is rarely what you'd call subtle, most of the laughs come at the expense of a gringo, the hugely gifted, wonderfully ridiculous Jack Black.
The Tenacious D frontman is Ignacio (or Nacho to his friends), a fat friar who longs for the glory reserved for Mexico's luchadores. Teaming up with the spindly Esqueleto (Jiménez), the tubby one tries to live his dream only to discover that he lacks the skills to win in the ring. Nacho also has to wrestle his conscience, for while on the one hand his hobby is outlawed by his faith, he believes sporting success would help him feed the orphans he looks after and improve his chances of seducing the comely Sister Encarnación (de la Reguera).
It's a slight plot but it's the springboard for huge laughs. As he proved with his previous picture Napoleon Dynamite, director Jared Hess - who co-wrote the film with his wife Jerusha and School Of Rock writer Mike White - has a rare ability to mock his hero while increasing the audience's desire to root for him. He's also very good at taking a stereotype - the school nerd in Napoleon, US attitudes towards Mexico in Nacho Libre - and ringing new laughs from it as much by laughing at moveigoers' expectations as from ridiculing the subject. And when it comes to comedic set pieces, Ignacio's days in 'the wilderness' and his in-ring activities are on a par with Napoleon doing his thing to Jamiroquai.
Even more impressive is Black's tour de force as the friar with an acute wrestling fixation. A shaggy perm, a farcical Mexican accent, an ill-fitting pair of tights - these are the unlikely elements that power arguably Black's best performance to date. Indeed, Jack the lad works such wonders with Nacho it's tempting to draw a comparison between his turn and Peter Sellers' sterling work as Inspector Clouseau. For just as the infamous French detective could have been offensive or unfunny in lesser hands, so Black seemed on a hiding to nothing playing an overweight Latino. But rather than preparing to feel offended, get ready to root for the round guy.