Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Talladega Nights is a zany comedy starring Will Ferrell as a NASCAR
driver, so I may surprise you at least a little bit when I start off
by saying this is one hell of a slick movie. The racing scenes are
shot and edited so well that they could come from a serious racing
film. The graphics used in the spoofs of racing's media coverage are
astoundingly elegant and professional. The musical selections had me
smiling and sometimes tapping my feet. Director Adam McKay, who has
been occupied through most of his professional life as a comedy
writer, has somehow managed to become the real deal as a director.
Perhaps he's acquired a lot of technical skill, or maybe he just has
the good sense to hire top people and let them do their jobs. Either
way, my hat is off to him for what he's managed to do with the look
and feel of this film. The sights and sounds of the film are not just
glitzy vehicles used to haul the entertainment, but are part of the
entertainment. Of course, with an $85 million
budget, I suppose McKay had better make this film look and sound good. That's a
lot of money for a lowbrow comedy!
Having said all of those nice things, I suppose I should add that they don't really mean much in the overall comedy picture. I mean, let's face it, if a comedy film director has the combined skills of Brian de Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg, it really doesn't matter if the film isn't funny.
But Talladega Nights is funny.
Will Ferrell and McKay have absolutely zeroed in on a specific American archetype: the clueless guy who thinks he has every clue because he has managed to succeed in some narrow way, and that success has puffed him up until he views himself as being more important to mankind than Louis Pasteur, Jesus, and Shakespeare combined. We all know these guys. On one of my visits back to my home town, I spent quite a bit of time trying to avoid a conversation with a complete nitwit in a bar, and he erupted in anger at me when I didn't know that he was "famous." I really thought he was kidding when he told me he was a local sportscaster on one of the network affiliates in Rochester. I thought it was some kind of ironic humor. He was an ugly little old guy with a bad toupee and an Northeastern accent so thick that he sounded like one of those low level mob guys on The Sopranos, so how could I possibly have guessed that he was on TV as a sports anchor? Furthermore, when I made a point to see his show the next day, I was shocked to see that he had absolutely no talent at all, stumbled over his readings, was hard to understand, and was obnoxious to boot! How did he get his job? Who the hell knows? Maybe he knew the right people, or paid off the right people, or paid a lot of dues for a lot of years. It doesn't matter. There are plenty of people whose careers are inexplicable, and he was one of them. Do you think guys like that are aware that they suck, and that they are lucky stiffs to have achieved something? Not on your life. Undeservedly successful people always seem to feel that they have earned their success through some superhuman talent and/or effort. This guy was convinced that he was a major celebrity, and his insular experience with people in Rochester had constantly reaffirmed that. After all, people see someone on TV, ergo he is a celebrity to them. He even treated people like inferiors, as Whitney Houston or Streisand or somebody else with a swollen celebrity ego would do. To me, of course, coming from outside of Rochester, he was an absolute nobody, and every time he tried to tell me drunkenly who he was, I responded with something like, "Sure, pal, and I'm the Czar of Russia."
That guy in Rochester came from the exact same mold as Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy, the San Diego Anchorman from the 1970s. Burgundy, in turn, is very similar to Ferrell's latest character, NASCAR's Ricky Bobby - basically the same kind of guy in a different profession - a man living an unexamined life, convinced that his success somehow makes him better than other people. After all, don't people give him vast amounts of love and money? Isn't he famous? Doesn't he have a hot wife and every possible toy money can buy? Talladega Nights follows precisely the same formula as Anchorman. An outsider of some kind comes along to challenge the puffed-up hero. For Ron Burgundy, it was a female co-anchor. For Ricky Bobby, it is a French Formula 1 driver. A gay one, no less. The Frenchman is tougher than Ricky, much smarter, and a better driver. First he easily breaks Ricky's arm in a fight. Then he beats him on the track. He's so good that he reads Camus while driving at top speed in a pack of cars. Ricky Bobby is eventually crushed by the ultimate humiliation, losing to a gay Frenchman who can beat him without even trying. Will Ricky make it back and learn something about himself on the way? Hey, it's a comedy, not Requiem for a Dream. Think of the Anchorman formula. Riches to rags and back again to riches. Of course he'll find happiness and a bit of humility. Probably in some very silly way.
Along his path, there are plenty of laughs. Ferrell and McKay were smart enough to choose a character with a different kind of background from Ron Burgundy's. Ricky Bobby is a classic Southern trailer-trash dumb-ass, and no amount of success can take the boy out of the country, so the writers were free to have a good time with that, and with his childhood as well. NASCAR itself provided plenty of grist for the comic mill, and the writers took jabs at the fans and the entire culture in which every move and every inch of space is sponsored by someone. Ricky Bobby has a contract with PowerAde that even requires him to mention their product whenever he says the family grace before meals. Although he makes a gazillion dollars a year, Thanksgiving dinner still consists of delivered pizza, and a gourmet meal comes from Applebee's. Ricky's two boys are named Walker and Texas Ranger because, you know, he wanted them to be manly. "If we wanted wussies, we would have named them Dr. Quinn and Medicine Woman." Ricky is really into Jesus, but he's not really fond of grown-up, hippie-lookin' Jesus. He prefers sweet baby Christmas Jesus. One of the funniest riffs in the film consists of Ferrell and his even dumber sidekick Cal (John C. Reilly) doing improvs on "How I picture Jesus." This compares with the "You know how I know you're gay?" scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Co-authors McKay and Ferrell have an interesting approach. Rather than concocting a tight script, they outline the plot and write twice as many jokes as they need, then they encourage the actors to improvise even more. They shoot the scenes several times with different lines, then pick the best stuff in the editing room. They shot so much for Anchorman that they were able to make an entire sequel from the discarded sub-plots, cleverly using other alternate takes as flashbacks! The same sort of surplus must exist for Talladega Nights, because there were a few really funny scenes in the trailer that didn't make the final cut. It is common for critics to complain that "all the funniest lines were already in the trailer." You sure can't register that objection to the McKay/Ferrell films. You'll be fortunate if you even see the funny lines from the trailer! In fact, they cut one very short scene that had me in stitches when I watched the trailer. After his defeat by the gay French guy, Ricky Bobby is in a wheelchair, with psychosomatic paralysis. But of course he's still a highly competitive athlete, so when he gets into a wheelchair basketball game, and an opponent is about to make the winning shot, Ricky gets up out of his wheelchair, leaps high in the air, and forcefully rejects the shot back into the face of a guy whose legs are really paralyzed! This scene had to be cut for some reason, but I'm sure it will make the DVD!
Ferrell is smart enough to know that his clueless character grows tiresome and can't be used to fill 100+ minutes of screen time, so he and McKay have come up with some of the best supporting casts ever assembled this side of Chris Guest. They like to cast people who are both very funny and very good actors. This time around, Oscar nominees John C. Reilly and Amy Adams get their licks in, and Jane Lynch (the Guatemalan love song chick from the 40-Year-Old Virgin) scores as Ricky Bobby's momma. The funniest of all is the character of Ricky Bobby's weaselin', drug-dealin', ne'er-do-well of a malt-liquor drinkin' dad, Reese Bobby, as played by Gary Cole in the Billy Bob Thornton style of degenerate hayseed characters. Ol' Reese Bobby deserted the family when Ricky was conceived, then came back one day, unexpectedly, for "career day" when Ricky was in elementary school. He proceeded to tell the kids, "If you ain't first, you're last," and to deliver an ignorant, obscene tirade against authority which got him kicked out by the school's security guards, but got the kids cheering for him as he sped away, tires squealing, through the school zone. Ricky Bobby didn't see his dad again for twenty years, but chose to base his entire life on what his dad told the class that day, only to have the old man reflect back on it two decades later and say, "Hell, did I say that? I was drunk, son. That's the dumbest-ass shit I ever heard." Cole, who played the iconically slimy Bill Lumbergh in Office Space, is rapidly becoming the best comic character actor on the planet. (And a good dramatic actor as well. By the way, did you know that Cole was in the final running against Don Johnson for the lead in Miami Vice?)
There is one grand moment of father-son reconciliation in the film. Ricky Bobby has left two tickets for his dad at every race he has ever run, and the old man has never shown up. Finally, when Ricky is about to engineer his big comeback, Reese shows up at the track and says dramatically to the box office attendant, "You got two tickets for me? My name is Reese Bobby." The attendant responds sentimentally, "These tickets have been waiting for you for a long, long time, mister."
Reese takes them, snaps them against his other hand, thinks for a second, then turns around to the people in line and says, "Who needs two? I got two in the stands."
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