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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 04 August 2006
Will Ferrell is beginning to establish a fairly well-defined screen character: he can be reasonably smart (“Kicking and Screaming”) or basically an airhead (this and other movies), but he’s always earnest even while he doesn’t grasp the situation at hand. He’s never a bad guy, as, say, Adam Sandler sometimes is, just an egocentric though well-meaning bumbler. And so it goes here, in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Ricky is something like Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman:” he’s had the world on a string, regarding his success as only just, even inevitable as he thinks he’s terrific. But the string is now beginning to fray.

Ricky Bobby, as we see in the opening scene, was born in the back seat of a car as his shiftless but enthusiastic good ol’ boy dad Reese (Gary Cole, who’s great) speeds mom Lucy (Jane Lynch) in the direction of a hospital, but she gives birth to Ricky en route. Naturally, as we see in a couple of childhood scenes, this instills in Ricky one burning drive: “I wanna go fast.” We also see him gain buddy Cal Naughton, Jr., who’s always right there with Ricky—if a pace or two behind. They develop a frequently used bonding catch phrase, “Shake and bake!” That neither of them has any idea how it applies to them is of no importance to the two; it’s just THEIR phrase. A brief encounter with his long (long) absent father gives Ricky a new credo: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” His father takes off again.

During a NASCAR race, Ricky (now Ferrell) and Cal (John C. Reilly) work under Lucius Washington (Michael Clarke Duncan) are annoyed when their lackadaisical driver (sponsor: Laughing Clown malt liquor) takes time out of the race for a pee and a hamburger. Lacking anyone else, Ricky is installed as a driver, and a legend is born. He always has two comp tickets waiting for his dad at the the window, two tickets that are never claimed.

Some years later, he’s one of NASCAR’s major stars (sponsor: Wonder Bread); he has a sexy wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb) and two extremely bratty sons, Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell). Cal’s still around, too; his willingness to help set up Ricky to win race after race means Cal never wins himself, and he’s starting to get just a leetle unhappy about this, but hey, Shake and Bake! He has a devoted, studious (she wears glasses) assistant, Susan (Amy Adams), obviously in the story to serve as a future romantic interest. Ricky films commercials (for knives, Big Red chewing gum, Japanese candy, tampons and other products). He signs autographs wherever the fans want, and last season made $21.2 million. He’s riding for a fall.

Which comes in the form of Formula One racer Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who’s not only insufferably French, he’s gay (“zis is my ‘usban’, Gregory”) and in the States to whup Ricky Bobby’s ass. Which he does during a race in which Ricky has a spectacular wreck. (Are there any UNspectacular NASCAR wrecks?) He’s unhurt, but (in a peculiarly unfunny scenes) is convinced he’s on fire; later in the hospital, he’s equally convinced he’s paralyzed. But he’s not.
Out of the hospital, Ricky is immediately dumped by Carley who instantly marries Cal, who now becomes a winner. Ricky loses the house and most of his money, then ends up as a pizza delivery boy, and he’s not very good at it. But of course, this is a sports movie—as the presskit cheerfully admits—and the Comeback Trail lies ahead.

This involves meeting his dad again, then reorganizing his pit crew, whom he mistreated before, so it’s slightly odd that they instantly join him again, no questions asked. Susan returns in time to give him the big confidence-building pep talk, after which they’re in love. And it’s on to the big finish.

“Talladega Nights” is brash and funny, not so much a spoof of anything NASCARian (many drivers and other figures appear as themselves) as it is a comedy with this setting and Will Ferrell as the star. There’s something ingratiating about Ferrell; he’s always personally likeable, even charming, and this is going to wear a lot better than the more insolent, disagreeable personas of other contemporary comedy stars. All he has to do is keep finding the right field to center his movies on; he was pretty much on the money with “Anchorman,” and that’s true here, too.

It’s not a great comedy; no interesting issues are addressed, no illuminating character changes take place. But it is a funny comedy. Ferrell and McGinley are both very good, and they seem to actually like each other—an idea confirmed by the outtakes that play during the end credits. But the top comedy performance here is by Gary Cole. He’s like Greg Kinnear—they seem to be able to do just about anything they’re physically suited for, and to do it well. Cole is full of energy at the beginning, drained but game (he’s older) at the end, and right on target as an actor. His character is both outrageous (“Gotta lay off the peyote,” he tells Ricky’s grade school class) and ingratiating. You always want to see more of him.

The movie tosses in oddball gags from time to time, as in the hideous behavior of Walker and Texas Ranger, and a commercial that plays during one especially big-scale racing wreck. Sometimes the inventiveness goes off-field far enough that it’s just peculiar, not funny, as when Jean Girard confides to Ricky Bobby that “like everybody” he wants to retire to Stockholm and design currency for dogs and cats. I was puzzled by Jean’s reference to “the dance of the blind shoemaker.” Say what? There’s a funny bit with a cougar that’s spoiled slightly by the occasional use of the worst fake cougar head in movie history. And I’m not sure what to make of the brief guest appearances of Elvis Costello and Mos Def.

Though it’s not a spoof of NASCAR, a lot of humor comes out of the arena, and it’s generally well-observed and convincing in a comic manner, about NASCAR and about the South, such as the Unfriendly Possum Bar & Grill. A few side remarks are amusingly strange; “you gotta win to be loved,” Bobby says, giving that “Asian guy who eats hot dogs” and Rue McClanahan as prime examples. Sometimes the dialogue is hard to make out; everyone has thick Southern accents, and the sound mix isn’t as effective as it could be. But it is inventive; as the opening titles play, the audience hears race car sounds behind them, coming up toward the screen via the side speakers.

Technically, the film is very impressive. The actors are rarely driving the cars, but you can be fooled, especially in a bravura sequence that begins as an aerial shot of Ricky driving, then without a cut moves down through the windshield into a close shot of Ferrell, then (still without a cut) out the back window and up into the air again. It’s unusual for such an imaginative, well-engineered shot to be included in a “mere” comedy.

Will Ferrell is a smart guy, and he doesn’t stoop to conquer comedy. Sure, there are some drug jokes here, but there are no fart jokes, no ca ca pee pee jokes, nothing crude, very little that’s lewd. And yet the movie is consistently funny, probably okay for most of the family. Ricky Bobby is at once a pretty thoroughgoing jackass and a nice guy; you enjoy the ride in his race car.

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