Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
2006Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, John C. Reilly
amuel L. Jackson, star of this summer’s strangely anticipated film, Snakes on a Plane, claimed that he was drawn to the role because from the title, “you either wanna see that movie or you don’t.” The concept of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby works in a similar way. You know immediately whether you want to see Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen playing rival stock-car drivers.
To me, the prospect of Ferrell paired with Baron Cohen of “Ali G” fame seemed too inspired to go wrong—and, indeed, the first 45 minutes of the film might be the funniest half of a film you’ll see all year.
The laughs begin instantly. Within the film’s first ten minutes, we meet Ricky Bobby, a ne’er do well from the South and watch him become the top driver in all of NASCAR, land a “smokin’ hot wife,” and move into a McMansion littered with Hummers and various gas-guzzling SUV’s. Cleverly, the filmmakers set up Bobby as the stereotypical ugly American: loud, tacky, self-consumed, and willfully ignorant. And, to his credit, no one plays the “lovable buffoon” quite like Will Ferrell.
But any movie needs an antagonist and when new rival, Jean Girard (Baron Cohen) joins the NASCAR circuit, conflict between the two inevitably ensues. As one might expect from the man who brought the world the genius “Ali G” characters, Baron Cohen’s character steals every scene he’s in. A Formula 1 driver from France, prone to reading Camus and sipping on espresso while driving his Perrier-sponsored car, Girard seems to be Bobby’s perfect foil, representing Freedom Fries Americans’ stereotypical image of the French. In fact, Bobby and Girard’s meeting might be the funniest scene in the movie. In it, Girard saunters into Bobby’s favorite redneck bar, only to put on a jazz record. Immediately, the barkeeper tells him that the only reason they even have jazz on the jukebox, along with various Pet Shop Boys and Seal records, is to profile people.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the conflict between Bobby and Girard that yields the film’s biggest laughs. In Bobby, Ferrell seems to be channeling a hybrid of George Bush and his Ron Burgundy character from Anchorman. But more than that, the Bobby character serves as a vehicle for the filmmakers to lampoon the stereotypical conception of the Southern male. Accordingly, Bobby is a NASCAR driver, homophobic, an Applebee’s fan, and obsessed with brand name products. And what better foil for a died-in-the-wool Southern good ol’ boy than Girard, a gay Frenchman constantly prone to public displays of affection with his lover, played by the always funny, Andy Richter?
But while the clash between the two disparate entities produces some great laughs, ultimately one is left with the feeling that filmmaker’s could’ve done more with the set-up. Sure, comedies like Talladega Nights, don’t exist to make any sort of point, but with such talented and intelligent actors and filmmakers behind the film, one senses that they could’ve dug deeper, mining more humor from the stark contrast between Frenchmen and Rednecks.
Indeed, the sum of the film’s ideas often seems funnier than the film itself. Blame it on the script, which is prone to wandering to an extent that’s excessive even for a comedy film. The subplot with John C. Reilly, who plays Ricky’s long-suffering best friend is rather pointless, as is an attempt to flesh out Ferrell’s character by making him desperate to gain fatherly approval. Additionally, a last minute romantic subplot with Ricky’s assistant played by Junebug star Amy Adams feels tacked-on. Though to the filmmaker’s credit, they even acknowledge its absurdity towards the conclusion.
These formulaic subplots cause the film’s energy to start to drag around its mid-way mark. Whereas a film like Zoolander, devised a twisting plot to contain the myriad set-ups and punchlines, Talladega Nights, feels like one big gag, albeit a very good one. One is left feeling that its writers got bored with concept mid-way through and just decided to plug in stories that needed resolution to kill the last half hour of screen time.
But as far as mainstream big budget Hollywood comedies go, you probably won’t find many better movies than this one. No one sees a movie like Talladega Nights expecting much more than laughs. In that respect, it more than delivers. As other reviewers have pointed out, Talladega Nights is nothing more than a series of skits, some of which work, some of which don’t. It may not hold up as a comedy classic, but for 110 minutes you will be entertained. Afterwards, you’ll be left wondering if they couldn’t have done more.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is now playing just about everywhere.