When I first saw the poster for Nacho Libre last summer—a picture of Jack Black leaping shirtless against the sky in tights and a cape, with wild hair and a mustache—I was excited for weeks. It seemed to promise the kind of film I'd been waiting five years for him to make: inspired, proudly absurd, uncorrupted by giant CGI gorillas, and with ample space for his signature improv. It turned out (except for a glorious moment or two) to be the exact opposite—even the 13-year-old who came with me thought it was lame. As always with Black's movies, I entered the theater primed to laugh and left feeling the kind of existential dread usually reserved for having just seen Oedipus Rex tear his eyes out.
Over the years, my relationship with Black's career has progressed from mild disappointment to outright abuse—a joyless but compulsive cycle in which I delude myself that somehow, next time, things will get better: He'll develop a sense of quality control, or a genius director will figure out how to use some fraction of his talent (e.g., David Lynch will adopt him as a lovable manic psychopath, or Wes Anderson will use him as a frenzied counterpoint to Bill Murray), or he'll quit Hollywood altogether and found a Monty Pythonesque art-comedy troupe that maintains rigorous comic standards and writes and directs its own perfect indie films. (Sometimes I fantasize that we live in an alternate cultural universe.)
But none of this ever happens. Instead, Black sleepwalks through "romantic" "comedies" about the soul-warming quirks of transatlantic love (The Holiday) or the ethics of loving Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit (Shallow Hal); he paralyzes half of his face muscles in a doomed effort to look unironic (King Kong); or he morphs into a low-fat, Muzak version of himself and leads preadolescents to soft-rock glory (School of Rock)—all for the delight of a mythical demographic that encompasses both 9-year-olds and their elderly chaperones. Black's films all have the same moral: that he shouldn't have made them. His mind is fundamentally incompatible with formulaic mainstream plots—it's like watching Miles Davis play The Lawrence Welk Show. There's no more-frustrating discrepancy between comic potential and actual achievement. How has the prince of wild improv become so predictable? Will he ever surprise us again? When will the Jack Blacksploitation stop?
Black first power-shimmied into mainstream visibility in 2000, stealing every scene from his better-known co-stars in High Fidelity. It seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of comic energy. He was able to slip with shamanlike frequency into the charmed, ecstatic, triumphant red zone of improv—and while there he was funny, irritating, strong, and impossible not to watch. The Great Spirit of Comic Joy seemed to have anointed him its chosen earthly vessel.
Black is built like a Belushi-Farley power comic (short and chubby) but also weirdly nimble: He'll charge around like an angry bear, stop suddenly to do a precise pantomime with his fingers, then leap off like a ballerina, waving his flippy arms. His face, with its demon-clown smile and hydraulic eyebrows, looks like a parody of the theatrical. All of these attributes allow him to pull humor out of places that no other actor can. My favorite Black performance is a Saturday Night Live sketch in which he transforms the bland, uninspired "Happy Birthday" song into a three-minute Goth opera about the mystical tragedy of birth: He leaps and twirls across a foggy stage in a ruffled white puffy shirt, intones antiquated Britishisms ("Thou knowest me not!"), and shatters the Clock of Eternity with a broadsword while a druid choir drifts in and out moaning "Happy birthday." It seems like the distillation of his comedy; it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing it.
The core of Black's talent is his inspired parody of inspiration. Each of his characters tries (but fails) to live by Walter Pater's classic dictum: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." He whips violently between extremes—depression, ecstasy, rage—and funnels every moment toward an exaggerated hyper-moment. His emotional spectrum runs roughly from toddler to adolescent, with blind, self-glorifying, Dionysian raptures followed immediately by apocalyptic tantrums—listen, for instance, to the classic Tenacious D skit "Inward Singing," in which he completes the entire cycle in two minutes. Although Black's critics tend to dismiss him as the kind of guy he often portrays—loud, boorish, dumb—his art actually runs much deeper. His best work is profoundly and purposefully stupid: He's examining what it means to be that kind of guy, swept away by super-sized joy.