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‘Nacho Libre’ is a featherweight flick

Jared Hess’ follow-up to ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ feels thin in comparison

The conflict between science and religion gets a surprisingly mild workout in the new Jack Black/Mike White comedy, “Nacho Libre.”

On God’s side is Nacho (Black), a Mexican monastery cook who becomes a wrestler so he can earn money and prepare better meals for the orphans he feeds. Representing the side of science, but rather hesitantly, is his wrestling partner, Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), who hasn’t been baptized and resists organized religion.

Once their contrasting philosophies are established, the script by White, Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess does little to develop them. Jimenez is a gifted Mexican comic — and he’s easily Black’s equal whenever he’s given the chance to toss off a one-liner or create a sustained slapstick episode — but the screenplay often leaves them high and dry.

Nacho at least has an interesting dilemma. The church elders force him to lead a double life because they disapprove of wrestling; he wears a mask, tights and a cape to the fights. While the friars may emphasize non-violence and loving one’s neighbor, it’s Nacho who’s the true humanitarian, using his new source of income to make sure that the orphans have plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Before this transformation takes place, he’s widely regarded as a terrible cook because he serves everyone the same stomach-churning gruel. Cutbacks in funding have forced him to recycle unappetizing leftovers that cause diarrhea. (There are, inevitably, a fair number of flatulence jokes.)

Once Nacho has the cash to prove what he can do in the kitchen, mouths water at the sight of his beautifully prepared meals. Of course, he can only continue this practice as long as he makes money in the ring, and eventually the strain shows.

He’s also chagrined that he and Esqueleto get paid mostly for losing. They put on a show that’s a theatrical knockout — so much so that they’re rewarded with cash and asked back for return engagements. But while the other wrestlers may be more proficient at winning, they can’t compete with Nacho’s jelly belly or the skeletal Esqueleto’s grotesquely comic maneuvers.

This may sound like thin material for a 90-minute comedy. Unfortunately, that’s how it plays. The director, Jared Hess, who had a surprise hit two years ago with “Napoleon Dynamite,” fails to establish a narrative momentum that would carry the picture past its frequent mistimed gags and tame characters.

Black and Jimenez rarely share a scene with other actors who are given equal weight. Ana de la Reguera plays a novice who smiles sweetly as she dimly recognizes that Nacho has a crush on her. Richard Montoya, as a smitten monk, is almost as bland. Peter Stormare, a Coen brothers’ favorite from “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski,” barely registers.

Filmed on the cheap in Mexico, where the Lucha Libre form of wrestling has become a phenomenon, “Nacho Libre” isn’t quite like anything else the studios have released this summer. Perhaps that will lend it an advantage. Still, it lacks the infectious energy of “The School of Rock,” the last White/Black collaboration.