Wrestling with Adorno: Nacho Libre and Celebrity

To judge by the reviews, you would get the impression that the new comedy film Nacho Libre is a relatively unfunny, dumb comedy. Well, take those reviews and use them for the only thing they’re good for: wiping away the tears of laughter from this incredibly funny and incredibly intelligent movie.

Nacho Libre is incredibly intelligent? Yes, but more on that later. I’ll admit, I’m not what you’d called a “Jack Black fan” [UPDATE: in the years since this review was written, I have become an enormous Jack Black fan] which some reviewers claim you must be in order to enjoy this movie. I liked him in School of Rock, but felt he was woefully miscast in King Kong. (Just one of MANY problems with that particularly uneven movie, which amazingly received far better reviews than Nacho Libre.) I liked him in that X-Files episode where he’s best friend to the guy who can control electricity. But I haven’t seen him in a bunch of other stuff. So don’t believe the hype that you have to enjoy Black personally to laugh at this movie. True enough, most of the laughs come courtesy of him, but he’s more than willing to share the spotlight with his co-stars. As a comedy, this is simply side-splitting. I laughed all through Napoleon Dynamite, from the same writer/director, and I laughed all the way through this as well. It’s just a flippin’ funny movie is all.

But that’s not all. It should not come as much of a surprise that almost every single review of this wonderful movie has overlooked the deeper significance. After all, most of them were so eager to prove how hip they are by comparing Nacho Libre adversely to Napoleon Dynamite; the fact that most of those very same reviewers also failed to get the humor of that particular film the first time around should not be forgotten. So, then, how is Nacho Libre anything but a dumb comedy?

Study this line from the masters of cultural studies, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer: “Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise, they would not be so eager to fit in.” This reasoning is just one of the many thousands of reasons why American Idol should be forever banished from the airwaves. There is no originality displayed by these contestants. Because there can’t be. They are there to win and how does one win a talent contest when millions of votes are on the line? Not by displaying originality and ingenuity, but rather by copying what has been successful before them.

The predominant amount of laughter that Jack Black provokes in Nacho Libre comes from his reactions. Yes, there is a goodly amount of pure slapstick comedy, but when we laugh hard at Nacho in this movie it stems from his reactions, whether to other wrestlers or the pretty nun with whom he is in love. And the reason we laugh at those reactions is because they are self-conscious re-presentations of what we expect. Black’s character Nacho has no real personality; his worldview is made up entirely of what he has seen in entertainment media. This is doubly effective because he is, after all, a cloistered orphan surrounded by religious men and one woman, along with child orphans. Nacho doesn’t know how to react genuinely; everything is a reaction that has been learned from watching TV and reading comic books.

This problem extends beyond Nacho, of course; it is endemic to the population of the America and is quickly extending to the rest of the industrialized world. And, further, the filmmaker deserve credit for going beyond this and digging deeper into the effects of this problem of alienation from genuine personality to the cult of personality. Nacho knows there is no way for him to ever achieve his dream of providing everything his beloved orphans will ever need short of becoming a celebrity, in this case a wrestler. Because our personalities are being formed more and more by the “reality show” mentality of instant wealth and fame, and because the ability to carve out a wedge of stability in almost any other kind of job is rapidly being outsourced away from us, it’s a double bind in which we find ourselves. Nacho has no hope of achieving his dreams without pursuing celebrity, nor does he have any access to his dream without achieving celebrity. Like an increasing number of high school and college graduates, he finds himself trapped between Scylla and Charybdis.

The hidden joke of Nacho Libre is that even in a place supposedly as insulated from the Americanization of the world’s culture as a monastery in Mexico, a kid can still be affected by our number one export: entertainment. It is odd, don’t you think, that so many hardcore conservatives oppose the whole One World concept when what globalization really means is the Americanization—the McDonaldization, Wal-Martization or Disneyfication—of the rest of the world. A global economy doesn’t mean giving up control of America to outside forces as the conservatives fear, rather it means extending the reach of corporate America’s idea of personality. A personality based entirely on learned conditioned behavior that is instilled by a constant flow of images and advertising. And that means a homogeneous world in which every decision is already pre-formed by virtue of the economic necessities require to fulfill those decisions.

Ultimately, what Nacho Libre shows is that every new generation of Americans responds to reality in ways they have learned from watching movies and televisions. For instance, ironic detachment is the rule of today, in direct opposition to the engaged emotions during the 1930s. Most people no longer respond to situations from a gut level instinct anymore; their reaction is tempered by what they’ve seen. It is no longer “cool” to care. One direct result of this can be witnessed in the utter apathy that so many people direct to a constant stream of news that their civil liberties are being stripped away from them and that they have been constantly lied to about a war that kills Americans every single day.

I haven’t read anything that even remotely takes up this idea in the other reviews of Nacho Libre. If they could how miss how funny it is, I guess it’s not surprising that they missed how deliciously subversive it is as well.