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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007

Image Will Ferrell has his own distinct audience. Most of the films he makes are geared for that audience. However, in “Talladega Nights” he strips all those gears and tears the knob off.

Ferrell plays NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, the outrageous blue collar hero of the high-octane sport of stock car racing. The name alone, as American as apple pie, is worth the price of admission. “Ricky Bobby” has got to be the most Southern name of any driver in NASCAR! It’s
As usual, Ferrell turns in a Will Ferrell acting job, part script , part ad-lib. When he starts chewing through a scene, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the scripted stuff ends and the improvisation starts. As Ricky Bobby, Ferrell turns out to be full-on American, stupidly redneck, impossible heroic, impossibly dumb, and vulnerable. Few actors could achieve that range within a single movie. And few critics would acknowledge Ferrell’s ambiguous mastery of those traits.

I have to step away from a purely professional review of this movie for a moment just to bring a personal perspective into the mix because I feel it’s necessary. I habitually, and yes—I do mean habitually, don’t care for Will Ferrell movies. I can’t buy into the inane characters, weird plots, or the unevenness.

However, I absolutely love Ferrell in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” There’s a completeness and a connection in the movie that I don’t ordinarily get. “Elf” is the only other Ferrell movie I’ve seen through completely, and I generally catch it with my kids at Christmas.

But Ferrell is genuinely ersatz in this movie to the point that it’s howlingly funny. Even when the inane pratfalls fell into place exactly as I thought they would, I still felt rewarded when I saw the movie in the theaters and again on Blu-ray. Ferrell’s antics on the screen seemed to bring out the best in the other actors. John C. Riley plays Cal Naughton, Jr., Ricky Bobby’s life-long friend and companion in peril. Together they’re “Shake and Bake”. Riley does a great job of being a friend in the first half of the film, then as a rival in the second after he steals Ricky Bobby’s wife and position on the racing team.

Gary Cole, as Reese Bobby, Ricky’s long-absent dad, blew me away. I’ve seen him in humorous stuff before and he’s frequent voice on cartoon shows, but I’d never seen him out there to the degree he was in this film. Even as whacked-out and weird as he was, I understood his motivation clearly throughout the film.

Michael Clarke Duncan plays Lucius Washington, Ricky Bobby’s pit crew chief. Duncan has a commanding physical presence in every film he’s in, but in this one he gets to show more of his comedic stretch.

Ricky Bobby’s sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, were played by Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell. Their acting was over the top as well, but it really suited the mood of the roles they starred in. They were definitely not politically correct, but anyone who’s been raised around kids who weren’t trained to act like kids knows children tend to act like adults.

Sacha Baron Cohen starred as Jean Girard, Ricky Bobby’s arch-nemesis and the perfect villain for the movie. He’s a French Grand Prix driver and homosexual, basically everything the average dedicated NASCAR fan would stand against. Not only that, but Cohen brings an extra wallop to the role by acting boorish and attracted to Ricky Bobby.

With all these characters in motion, the film could have gotten lost or wandered too far astray. Instead, it hews to the same kind of plot line that made other B-grade movies like “Rocky III” and “The Replacements” work. Ricky Bobby is a hero fallen from the top, tripped up by his own huge ego, then scared to try again because he doesn’t know how he truly became great in the first place. It’s an archetypal plot, but it’s one of those that works time and time again.

The movie begins with a peek back at Ricky Bobby’s childhood. He’s born in the back of a speeding car, then abandoned by his daddy. At five years old, Ricky Bobby’s only real words and drive is, “I want to go fast.” He steals the family car while his mom is in the convenience store, then demonstrates the kind of driving that will one day get him into NASCAR. Later, while in school and the lifelong friendship with Cal Naughton has begun, he sees his father again. Reese Bobby shows up for the day to explain his job, which is racing. The reunion only lasts a few minutes before Reese is taken out of the building by police. But it leaves an impression on Ricky Bobby when his daddy tells him, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!”

Ricky Bobby grows up to live by those words. He starts racing, and he starts winning. No one can stop him. No one can hold him back. He and Cal form the best team on the tracks and no one can defeat their brand of “shake and bake”.

As Ricky Bobby gets successful, he also gets married to his “smokin’ hot” wife and has two children, Walker and Texas Ranger. Their family existence is showcased at Thanksgiving as they sit around in a large, lavish house while eating buckets and bags of fast food produced by Ricky Bobby’s various sponsors. The prayer before the meal is one of the most remembered, and most quoted, sequences from the film. It’s offensive, nowhere near politically correct, and totally Will Ferrell.

Although the uncompressed sound has been good up to this point in the Blu-ray disc, the rumble of the engines and the shredding tires really blast surround sound systems during the races. This is one of those discs that will wake up the neighbors if you crank it for the full experience.

As good as Ricky Bobby is, he makes enemies—his arrogance makes people want to see him fall. Jean Girard is brought in to race at NASCAR. (Since the two racing styles are very different in many ways, including the cars they drive, this is somewhat improbable, but Will Ferrell movies tend to be all about improbable so reality is out the door from the first frame.)

When Ricky Bobby and Girard meet in one of the racer bars, no one expects the French race car driver to so thoroughly dominate, but does—in a battle of wits, then in physical prowess. The patrons of the bar where they meet, especially Ricky Bobby, are stunned. The next day on the racetrack, Girard edges out Ricky Bobby for the win. For the first time, Ricky Bobby doesn’t come in first. Therefore, he’s last.

Ridiculous as it sounds, losing one race breaks Ricky Bobby’s spirit and his control behind the wheel. He’s a shattered husk of his former self. The scene where he climbs out of the car thinking he’s on fire, then strips down to his underwear and rolls to put out the flames is insane. Few people could make something like that work. Even though Ferrell doesn’t pull it off with any true elegance, it stands as a prime example of what Ricky Bobby is going through.

He plunges into despair and timidity, becoming a pizza delivery guy, losing his wife and best friend, his house, his money, and even his driver’s license. When Ricky Bobby hits rock bottom, he’s stuck with kids that don’t love or respect him. With nowhere else to turn, he goes home. And that’s when the saving grace of his dysfunctional family rises to save the day.

Reese Bobby returns to coach his son on driving. The lessons are hilariously stupid, obnoxious, and—somehow—funny. When Ricky Bobby had to drive with the cougar in the car, I totally lost it. When Ricky Bobby fights with the cougar, viewers can see the cougar isn’t real, but Ferrell plays it out anyway and that somehow makes it even funnier. It feels like he’s laughing with the audience at that point, and you almost expect him to stand up and wink knowingly at the audience. Taking his driving test with the cougar in the car, his fear totally under control, is the icing on the cake.

Although the movie tends more toward the predictable at that point, it’s still a treat. The family getting thrown out of Applebee’s was another turning point that leaves a mark, though you have to wonder how many people tried to get thrown out of one of those restaurants after the movie.

The disc comes generously packed with a lot of extras. The gag reel filled with the cast’s antics has to be seen to be believed. You have to wonder if the days ever felt like work or if it was like getting up to go play at the playground every day. While it’s understandable why the deleted scenes were deleted and some scenes cut short, it’s fun to watch them on the disc. The staged interviews of the characters rather than the actors were a hoot.

Admittedly, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” isn’t going to be to everyone’s liking, this movie comes close to being one for the general audience instead of the fans just as “Elf” was. The NASCAR background will likewise draw people in or turn them off. This is probably not a date movie, but it’s definitely one for the guys of all ages—except for those few scenes where the language or sexual situations might not be considered appropriate. One thing can be said, though: there’s never been a NASCAR movie like this one. Even Burt Reynolds’s “Stoker Ace” wasn’t this far out. But when it comes to being champion comedic stock car movie, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

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