Friday, September 01, 2006

In Theaters: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

[Image courtesy Empire Movies]

It's interesting. I've never followed NASCAR to any kind of degree, still don't quite grok the sport, and yet this summer I've seen two quite good movies connected to it. TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (which just may beat out SNAKES ON A PLANE for the honor of Year's Best Title) is the right kind of epic comedy to close out the summer movie season, for me anyway. It's funny, light, and loud, and has a decent story on top of that. Ironically, its one true failing is that it isn't fast enough.

Born in a car traveling over a hundred miles an hour, driven by his unstable father (Gary Cole), Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) grows up with one thought on his mind: "I wanna go fast." Starting out as a pit crew member (for a car sponsored by Laughing Clown Malt Liquor), Bobby gets a chance to go on the track when the actual driver steps out during a pit stop for a chicken sandwich. Bobby quickly becomes a star racer, winning several championships (but never on points), often with the assistance of fellow racer Cal Naughton, Jr., a teammate who is content to take second in order to set up a "shake and bake" maneuver which never fails to send Bobby into first. Bobby has millions in endorsement deals, a hot trophy wife (Leslie Bibb), and two smartmouthed children, Walker and Texas Ranger. Life is good.

Then along comes Jean Girrard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a French Formula One star who has come to the states to compete at NASCAR. The two confront each other at a bar, where Girrard breaks Bobby's arm. Bobby insists on racing mere days after and crashes, and though mostly uninjured, can't bring himself to drive over 26 mph. Dropped from the team, and his house, Bobby takes Walker and T.R. over to live with his mother (Jane Lynch). Bobby gets a job delivering pizzas (eventually via bicycle), and runs into his long-lost dad, who decides to teach Bobby to conquer his fear so he can once again go very very fast.

The plot is actually a bit more complicated than this, surprisingly enough, and it may just have one wrinkle too many- at 108 minutes, it feels a bit longer than it should, though I can't say what ought to be cut. Humorwise, it does take a little while to get going, though that may be because I saw it on a Thursday and it was a light crowd. I guess I'm getting the negative stuff out of the way early. Okay then. There we go.

On the upside, it is very funny. The same kind of melodramatic absurdity and non-sequitirness that marked ANCHORMAN is on display here, slightly less intensely because the story's meatier, but still effective. The cast is excellent; Ferrell is a natural at this kind of role, Reilly is surprisingly adept at wacky comedy, Cole comes close to stealing the show at times, and there are good appearances by Amy Adams as a nerdy-yet-very-very-cute pit manager and Molly Shannon as the drunken wife of the team owner.

And then there's Cohen. The character he plays is interesting, because he's introduced as the ultimate NASCAR heel- a married gay Frenchman who listens to jazz, reads Camus and drinks tea while driving, and takes a disaffected, ironic view of everything. And yet the movie goes so far as to make him somewhat sympathetic, and much of the film's resolution undermines a lot of the fake "common man vs. elitist" politics which NASCAR, like just about any other "blue collar" pastime, gets dragged into. Despite most Hollywood filmmakers leaning to the liberal side, the "anti-French" meme has gained surprising traction in all levels of pop culture, and it's nice to see it deflated once in a while even as French culture is mocked alongside it. The claim that "we make fun of everyone", sometimes used disingenuously, actually applies here. In any case, Cohen's is a good performance, and it's a bit of a shame that Andy Richter, as his husband, doesn't get more screentime.

So, we have here a big dumb comedy that's not completely dumb (indeed, that actually holds together thematically), that's not as funny as perhaps it could be but still delivers. The problem with a comedy like this is I can't talk too much about the jokes without just giving them away, suffice it to say they generally work, and so it's worth your time.

Grade: B


nakedblogger said...


Do you feel entirely comfortable using the verb "to grok" in everyday conversation? I got you but am a bit surprised to hear someone giving props to the venerable Mr. H.

Evan Waters said...

I don't think I've ever used it in conversation. Interestingly enough I am reading "Stranger in a Strange Land" at the moment, so that probably influenced my choice of words.