Although its marketing campaign stresses Jack Black in tights, "Nacho Libre" strikes a delicate balance of whimsy and absurdity that may surprise auds primed to expect wall-to-wall slapstick. This family-friendly, PG-rated pic looks primed to pin a leggy theatrical run.

Although its marketing campaign stresses Jack Black in tights, “Nacho Libre” strikes a delicate balance of whimsy and absurdity that may surprise auds primed to expect wall-to-wall slapstick. Helmer Jared Hess’ followup to “Napoleon Dynamite” is a more traditionally commercial comedy that nonetheless percolates with the same quirky off-centeredness that infused his 2004 cult fave. Even auds immune to the earlier pic’s eccentric charms may enjoy the deftly muted zaniness of this fable about a would-be Mexican grappler’s misadventures. This family-friendly, PG-rated pic looks primed to pin a leggy theatrical run.

Black often appears aglow with a pixilated sweetness in his appealingly loopy star turn as Ignacio, an orphan raised by friars in a Mexican monastery. (Pic neatly finesses the potentially troublesome issue of the thesp’s unmistakable gringo-ness by explaining the character’s mom was a Scandinavian missionary.)

Ignacio labors devoutly as the monastery’s cook, making the most of meager means — very, very meager means — while preparing a steady menu of bland gray gruel for the friars and the orphans in their care.

Relentlessly driven to provide a more varied bill of fare — and boyishly eager to impress lovely young Sister Encarnacion (telenovella vet Ana de le Reguera), a new addition to the monastery staff — Ignacio wants to join the ranks of Lucha Libre wrestlers, those larger-than-life kings of the ring who are idolized throughout Mexico. The friars forbid such worldly activities, but Ignacio plans to wrestle under the pseudonym Nacho and to wear a concealing mask — just like his idol Ramses (real-life luchador Cesar Gonzalez), the reigning champion.

Even after he finds a tag-team partner in Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), an impossibly skinny street fighter with bad teeth and worse social skills, Ignacio fares poorly as a macho luchador. Although he earns a tidy sum even when he loses to ferocious midgets or golden-ager grapplers, he wants to prove he has what it takes to rank with the greats. And failing that — well, he’d like to beat somebody, anybody, at least once.

“Nacho Libre” lopes along a fairly predictable course, heading toward a climactic match in which Nacho butts heads with the haughty Ramses. Working from a script he concocted with wife Jerusha Hess (who also collaborated on “Napoleon Dynamite”) and Mike White (co-writer, with Jack Black, of “The School of Rock”), Hess treats his familiar plot merely as an excuse to string together scenes of straight-faced looniness and mock-serious dialogue.

Whenever Ignacio rouses himself to speechify dramatically or sing soulfully, auds can safely expect some sort of punchline.Black’s ability to temper wild-eyed excess with heartfelt sincerity (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) keeps Ignacio endearing throughout.

“Chaplinesque” is a word that gets tossed about much too freely (and inaccurately) by critics, but it’s easy to spot the similarities between Ignacio’s earnest efforts in the square circle and Charlie Chaplin’s desperate measures during the classic boxing match in “City Lights.”

With the considerable help of stunt coordinator Nick Powell (“Braveheart,” “Gladiator”), Black plows through the wrestling scenes with a robust flair that is at once graceful and hilarious.

Filmed entirely on location in Mexico, “Nacho Libre” showcases many local talents on either side of the cameras. Effectively low-key supporting perfs by Jimenez and de la Reguera are perfectly suited for pic in which nothing, not even a camel clutch or a body slam, ever is allowed to get too far out of hand.

Standout tech contributors include lenser Xavier Perez Grobet (“Before Night Falls”) and costumer Graciela Mazon (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico”).

Pic overall is affectionately respectful in its treatment of Lucha Libre — aud is invited to laugh, but not at, the wrestlers and their enthusiastic fans — which should please those who viewed “Napoleon Dynamite” as somehow condescending to its nerdy characters. Of course, the presence of Caesar Gonzalez and other real-life luchadores in the cast may partially account for absence of jeering mockery. After all, would you want to get those guys angry?

Nacho Libre

Production

A Paramount release of a Nickelodeon Movies/Black & White production. Produced by Mike White, Jack Black, Julia Pistor, David Klawans. Executive producer, Steve Nicolaides. Directed by Jared Hess. Screenplay, Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Mike White.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Xavier Perez Grobet; editor, Billy Weber; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Gideon Ponte; art director, Hania Robledo; set decorator, Maria Paz Gonzalez; costumes, Graciela Mazon; sound (Dolby SDDS/DTS), Santiago Nunez Rojo; visual effects supervisor, Kelvin McIlwain; associate producers, Benjamin Cooley, Ben Le Clair; assistant directors, Steve Nicolaides; Frederic Henocque; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Nick Powell; casting, Carla Hool. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Cinema, Houston, June 6, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Ignacio/Nacho - Jack Black Sister Encarnacion - Ana del la Reguera Esqueleto - Hector Jimenez Chancho - Darius A. Rose Juan Pablo - Moises Arias Chuy - Diego Eduardo Gomez Segundo Nunez - Carlos Maycotte Guillermo - Richard Montoya Ramses - Cesar Gonzalez Emperor - Peter Stormare

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