Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (review)

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
By Philip Booth

Stars Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Michael Clarke Duncan, Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams, Andy Richter, Molly Shannon, Greg Germann and Pat Hingle. Written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Directed by Adam McKay. 107 minutes. Rated PG-13.

There’s a fine line between stupid and clever, as Spinal Tap lead singer David St. Hubbins observed in the movie named after a mock band that actually gave live performances. There’s a fine line, too, between making fun of beer-drinking, Lynyrd Skynyrd-loving, Southern-accented, NASCAR-watching citizens of the American heartland and laughing with them. Just ask the real band Drive By Truckers.

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” carefully walks that line, effectively stitching a string of dumb but funny zingers into a thin story built on a surprisingly sympathetic performance reuniting Will Ferrell with director Adam McKay, of “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” Anyone detect a theme with these titles, and are these movies perhaps Ferrell’s bid to get a franchise or two off the ground while his box-office numbers are still hot?

The plot of “Talladega,” like “Anchorman,” might be described as rags to riches two times over. Ricky, literally born in a fast car, grew up scribbling “I Wanna Go Fast” on his desktops at school, and taking to heart the life philosophy spouted by his no-count dad (Gary Cole, in a gem of a comic performance): “If you’re not first, you’re last.”

Fifteen years later, at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, Ricky and his best friend Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly, regularly stealing scenery) work their way from the pit crew to the driver’s seat. In no time flat, Ricky lands a spot atop the NASCAR nation, along the way taking a gold-digging blonde hottie for a wife (Leslie Bibb), signing autographs for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and other ardent fans, and fostering a bit of resentment in his buddy Cal.

Then disaster strikes, in the form of a bad speedway accident, and Ricky loses everything, including his wife, his house and his mind, only to recover the last during one of the movie’s funniest slapstick sequences. Out of luck and money, he retreats to the home of his mom (Jane Lynch) and picks up more advice from his long-last dad: “You gotta learn to drive with the fear.” Also feeding Ricky’s competitive fever is the ascendancy of driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, AKA Ali G), a bebop-loving, macchiato drinking, Camus-reading, bizarrely accented (read: Sellers’ Clouseau) Frenchman who’s accompanied by his dog trainer “husband” (Andy Richter).

Ferrell and McKay, also screenwriters and executive producers on the film, strategically include visual and spoken references required for any redneck-loving movie – or, for that matter, any routine by Larry the Cable Guy routine or tune by Southern Culture on the Skids, both of whom have cornered the market on this sort of shtick.

Critically drubbed, big-selling rock bands, in this case Skynyrd, Styx and Whitesnake? Check. Critically drubbed, big-selling movie (Highlander)? Check. Fast food places (KFC, Taco Bell, both no doubt happy to make product-placement deals)? Check. Mediocre family restaurant (Applebee’s)? Check. Discount-store giant (Target, not the usual Wal-Mart).

Oddly named children (Walker and Texas Ranger), an inappropriately domesticated animal (cougar), snakeskin boots and Western shirts? Check, all. But what the heck are Elvis Costello and Mos Def doing in this movie?

(This review will appear in slightly altered form in newspapers in Florida and Las Vegas)


RC said...

how funny, i love your check list of inclusions of product placements, even for midiocre resteraunts :-)

I've had the same thought as i've seen previews (is this movie for NASCAR fans or people who want to make fun of NASCAR fans).

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

Philip Booth said...

Yes, I continue to be surprised by the blatancy and relentlessness of product placement in the movies. It's really becoming quite a plague

As for your second comment: I really think the movie is for both audiences -- NASCAR fans, and people who might enjoy making fun of NASCAR fans and/or redneck culture.

Anyone who truly "hates" NASCAR culture, though, probably wouldn't care for the movie, because I believe that Talladega's makers demonstrate genuine affection for their subject matter.

RC -- Thanks for reading and commenting