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Non-Review Review: Talladega Nights – The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is not as good as Anchorman. That said, this reunion of Will Ferrell with Adam McKay has its charm – helped along by the fact that its comedy is framed inside a wonderful little story, and acted out by all manner of skilled performers. I think, if anything, the movie stands as a testament to the huge difference that a sympathetic and engaging protagonist and strong supporting cast can make to a comedy.

A breath of fresh air...

Don’t get me wrong, there are more than a few hilarious moments in Talladega Nights. My personal favourites include an attempt to convince the eponymous race car driver that his paralysis is psychosomatic (which, unfortunately, does not mean he can start fire with his mind), or a rather wonderful dinner-table conversation with fairly conspicuous product placement. And while Ferrell is on fine form here, the laughs don’t come quite as thick or as fast as they did in the film that made him a star. But that’s fine.

It’s fine because Ferrell’s Nascar driver actually seems like a decent human being, unlike so many comedy protagonists these days. He’s a man with rather obvious shortcomings (he’s shallow, unaware of others and more than a little stupid), but we get the sense there’s very little malice behind it all. Even when he allows his kids to act like spoilt brats, you get the sense that he’s only passing on advice he learnt from his absent father, passed on while the old man was high on copious amounts of weed. There’s a sense that Ricky Bobby isn’t a bad human being – he doesn’t wish harm to another individual, he doesn’t conspire to earn what isn’t rightfully his. He’s just trying to do what he likes doing, even if he’s not sure why. He even attempts to overcome his own homophobia in his own incredibly awkward fashion.

Shaking it up...

Aside from Bobby himself, it helps that McKay and Ferrell have a solid template to set the movie against. Talladega Nights is basically a rags-to-riches-to-rags-and-possibly-back-to-riches tale, one that we’ve all seen countless times before – our hero earns fame and success without appreciating them, only to lose them and embark on a quest of self-discovery. Coupled with Ferrell’s engaging lead character, the audience is actually interested in watching the story unfold, and we genuinely come to care for Ricky Bobby. I think that’s what sets Anchorman and Talladega Nights apart from the rest of Ferrell’s work – as much as the characters are shallow and selfish man-children, they retain an innocence and sincerity that a lot of his other characters seem to lack. As such, we’re not merely marking time between laughs, but following laughs that grow organically out of a well-written and well-paced story.

There’s a sequence towards the end that illustrates this perfectly, demonstrating that, while McKay and Ferrell aren’t being at all serious, they are still more than a little sympathetic towards their lead. The cars on the racetrack have overturned, and Ricky Bobby and his arch nemesis climb out of the wreckage… and race towards the finish line on foot. On the soundtrack, the eighties power ballad We Belong roars at full strength as the pair move in exaggerated slow motion. It’s hilarious and over-the-top… but it’s also strangely emotional. It’s actually far more effective than the bulk of generic sports movie scenes that it parodies.

Crash course...

We’re laughing at Ricky Bobby, but part of us is also cheering him on, because we want him to finish, even if we’re aware (as the movie is) that “it was completely illegal and in no way will count, but man that was really something.” His deadbeat dad cheers from behind the fence, presumably having sold on the two tickets Ricky left for him, can of booze in hand, “Good for you, Ricky Bobby!” Truth be told, we can’t help but agree. We know that it doesn’t mean anything – and it shouldn’t mean anything – but we like Ricky Bobby enough to want to see him succeed. I’m not sure I can objectively justify my opinion, but I easily rank that one scene among the best movie scenes of the past decade. Hell, I’m still listening to We Belong now, alternating between fits of laughter and a proud smile.

It helps that Ferrell is backed up by a superb supporting cast. First and foremost is John C. Reilly, demonstrating a superb chemistry with Ferrell and wonderful comedic talent. While Step-Brothers was a bit of a misfire, there’s no denying that it must have seemed a good idea, as they two have a wonderful childlike innocence that plays well together. Reilly is perhaps the most hilarious member of the ensemble, even funnier than Ferrell himself. It’s almost a shame that Reilly seems to have branched off into comedy after this role, given his strengths as a dramatic actor, but one can honestly see the talent he has for it.

Pax Americana...

Another highlight is Gary Cole as Ricky’s deadbeat dad. I love Cole – I honestly think he’s one of the really great modern American supporting actors. Yes, that’s a lot of qualifications, but he’s one of the very few members of the large West Wing cast that I am disappointed didn’t get more screentime. Like Reilly, he has a superb talent for drama and comedy, and I’d dare say that Cole gives the movie even just a small amount of dramatic weight, given he makes the movie’s token deadbeat dad character a stand-out. Given how generic the role description is (in that virtually every man-child comedy seems to require a negligent father), that’s some accomplishment.

The rest of the cast ain’t bad either. Sacha Baron Cohen is solid as ever (the scene where he attempts to force Ricky to admit that he like crepes is brilliant). Leslie Bibb displays some nice comedic timing. Jane Lynch and Amy Adams would both go on to much larger things after this film, and they’re more than reliable here. I’m a sucker for any movie that can find time to give Pat Hingle a part, and I do like both Greg Germaine and Molly Shannon. The cast really is superb, and I think they serve as the glue that holds the film together. They all look to be having fun, and that’s contagious.

Racy...

I also have to confess that I’m impressed by the subversive way that McKay handles product placement. It’s like that scene in Wayne’s World, just expanded across an entire movie, with any number of recognisable companies having their names dropped in a wonderfully self-conscious manner to illustrate just how vacuous Ricky’s life actually is. I suppose that any publicity is good publicity, and that appearing in a Will Ferrell movie must be cool, but it seems strange to see so many well-known brands used in such a sly fashion.

Talladega Nights isn’t brilliant, but it’s entertaining, and it works well as a movie. It helps that Ricky Bobby feels like a real character, just as Ron Burgandy did, rather than a two-dimensional stereotype or cutout.

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4 Responses

  1. I like this much more than Anchorman. It’s an arduous task taking a character like Ricky Bobby and not making a condescending film with it.

    • I think that’s the success of the film. I actually want Ricky Bobby to succeed, which is really soemthing, given his obvious flaws.

  2. Personally I liked this more than Anchorman, but I might not have been in the right state of mind when watching Anchorman.

    The whole bit about baby jesus is very funny….

    • I love that scene. The entire dinner table scene was the first “side spasming” bit during th movie. It was also the bit where I noticed John C. Reilly was really funny.

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