I cannot think of many things more desolating than seeing a comedy with a stone-faced audience. Oh wait, I can -- being the only one sitting stone-faced as gales of laughter shake the foundations of the theater. Contagious laughter? Not during Nacho Libre, which has more allegedly comic bits hitting the windshield like pigeon shit than any picture I've suffered through since The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Much like Wes Anderson, director Jared Hess purveys the kind of oddball-chic that either tickles or makes you stare first in bemusement, then in boredom, finally in slight nausea, particularly if the screening room is packed with Napoleon Dynamite fanatics instructed to howl at the tiniest spasm of "eccentricity." But enough about audiences, there's more than enough twitching up on the screen -- Jack Black plays the deadpan underdog-spazz this time, the fruit of a Scandinavian missionary and a Mexican deacon, now a friar cooking muddy bean-'n'-chips for children and fellow monks at an orphanage in rural Oaxacan when not daydreaming of donning El Santo mask and spandex tights and hitting the lucha libre ropes. His first actual taste of wrestling comes during a scuffle with the scrawny beggar (Hector Jimenez) who tries to make off with his tortilla chips; after that, weary of pulling "cooking duties and... dead-guy duties" at the monastery, Black devises a secret identity as Nacho Libre the luchador, hitting the arena with Jimenez as his hapless partner.
The "joke" is that they suck, with Black's Nacho hopping around the ring with his belly hanging out only to be defeated by masked giants and sent back to his daily life of aiding kids and contemplating breaking his vows for Ana de la Reguera, the newly arrived, distractingly hot nun. Black and Jimenez skip across the fields, then, apropos of nada, one smears the other with cow shit; Black climbs a mountain, gulps down yolk from eagle eggs, then dives into the sea propelled by a fart blast; Black crashes a party to dole out the obligatory Tenacious D ditty, then Jimenez gets chased by an amorous, obese woman -- maybe I missed the so-unfunny-it's-funny boat, or maybe after Anderson and Spike Jonze and David O. Russell I've had an assful of eccentricity, but one way or another just about every gag is cut and dried and flattened for (zzzzz) irony. The film's one genuinely endearing trait is the way it views Nacho's Christian faith with his desire to wrestle less as contradictory impulses than as complementary human instincts, although the childlike benevolence needed to enrich the religious with the knockabout needs to be a pure one; Hess's "innocence" is rank and fraudulent. The picture's kitschy use of raucous wrestling paraphernalia lacks the wit of Guy Maddin's short Sombra Dolorosa, yet Black's blobby, cyclonic virtuosity dilutes much of the director's derision. No distancing smirk for cinema's reigning slob-sprite -- the infantile joy he takes in cracking tortilla chips in his palm and blowing them like petals over his beloved's meal can't be dampened even by the strenuous inanity of Nacho Libre.
Hipness-seeking reviewers hailing the singular hilarity of Nacho Libre simply to keep up with the knowing Joneses are predictably too cool for The Lake House. That the one truly romantic American picture since Before Sunset gets routinely tagged "dopey" and "gooey" and the like only goes to show how blind critics today have become to spiritual yearning, but, then again, Alejandro Agresti's tale of emotional faith might be a deliberate act against cynicism. The premise is simultaneously quaint and high-concept: a man and a woman occupy the same space (a Chicago home) but different time periods, he in 2004 while she in 2006, kept apart but for the pooch they share and the mailbox through which they magically communicate with letters. The casting sounds almost as gimmicky, with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, viscerally forced together more than a decade ago in Speed, kept chastely separated for most of the running time. He's a building contractor, she's a forlorn doctor, the glass home of the title is the time-traveling link between them, the rising and falling of the mailbox's tiny red flag signaling the messages, and their stabs at connection. Love blooms, the capricious nature of chance is evoked, emotion defies physics; Christopher Plummer's presence points to Somewhere in Time, yet Agresti aims even earlier, to an innocence where the simplest of cuts can generate a splendiferous effect by producing a tree out of nothing.
Critics may call the romantic earnestness of The Lake House "outdated," yet how refreshing its melancholy lilt is in an era when e-mail and cell phones separate people more than they link them. The mailbox is a disarmingly low-tech gambit, though Agresti's delicate textures -- an aching mood turned visual -- are far from simplistic: panning and dollying become the camera's caresses and a split-screen is subtly employed for the couple's first squabble, but the idea of emotion racing to defeat time never degenerates into directorial showiness, like Michel Gondry sticking his antsy ass between characters and audience in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Reeves and Bullock play off against their established box-office personae (blank hero and perpetual ingénue, respectively) to mine considerable vulnerability; the temporal dislocation provides the delaying set-up, the payoff is the stars' first moment together in both time and space, so the long-take comes in to the porch at night for an extended two-shot, with the two souls balanced in the frame to talk about Jane Austen, first loves, dreams. The temporal-spatial integrity of the scene is sure to be missed by the fidgety hipsters who prefer to wonder why yuppies would watch Notorious (black and white, eeeww) on television, but a privileged moment is still a privileged moment, and the movie remains a satisfyingly sarcasm-free ode to the flickering absurdity of romance.
As tediously testosterone-filled as The Lake House is gracefully chick-flickish, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift illustrates the law of diminishing returns for a series that by my lights was hardly any good to begin with. Rob Cohen mashed the junky formula together (phosphorescent car-slamming + spurious racial tensions = $$$$$) in 2001, John Singleton gave it a pulpy twirl of his own a few years later, and now Justin Lin is at the wheel. People who consider his Better Luck Tomorrow a hard-hitting portrait of Asian-American tension (I don't) will want to excavate thematic links from the franchise's latest locale, the Tokyo of glitz and neon and schoolgirls cheering for the nocturnal rumbles, though the macho-maturation arc is probably far closer to the teen-underdog mildness of Lin's previous dud, Annapolis. Points for dumping Paul Walker, in any case -- Lucas Black is the white-boy hero, a troublemaking high-schooler sent over to Japan as punishment (wha?!) for his unruly drag-racing; the "drifting" scene awaits him there, with flashy autos skidding through treacherous curves and, even more dangerously, through the fearsome choppiness of Lin's "kinetic" editing. Sonny Chiba looks trim in a white suit, here mainly as a reminder that the "Green Hornet" sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 alone was an immeasurably more potent mix of racial-cultural implications, to say nothing of a much more lyrical telescoping of the ominous marvels of Tokyo at night. Oh well -- the chrome fetishizing here is still less leaden than Pixar's in Cars.
Reviewed June 22, 2006.