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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (review)

500 Laps of Subversion

I’ve said this a million times, that I love The Movies so much that I’d rather be sitting in a movie theater watching a bad movie than doing almost anything else, and of course there’s always the hope that a movie that you think is gonna be bad, gonna be the worst kind of awful that you’ll squirm through the whole thing and actually consider revising that policy about bad movies, will turn out to be okay after all. This is my eternal hopefulness about The Movies, that no matter how often my sensibilities get beaten up and my intelligence insulted and my basic humanity trashed, I keep coming back because I yearn to be surprised like that.

And that was how I went into Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby. I hate, hate, hate the idiocy of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — the previous collaboration between writer/director Adam McKay and writer/star Will Ferrell — with a passion than cannot be contained. I despise its bitter misogyny, which is entirely at odds with its overt intentions to send up such attitudes. I revile its sheer incompetence on the level of craft. How could the realm of NASCAR — with its boob-headed deification of the worst aspects of American culture: rampant consumerism, macho aggression, sinful wasting of unrenewable natural resources — in the hands of McKay and Ferrell be anything less than a trial to be endured and survived, if possible, one that might even require the metaphoric chewing off of that limb of aching hopefulness that shackles me to my cinematic obsessions? Would this be the one movie that, at last and finally, killed the previously unkillable optimism that has been sustaining my 200-plus movie habit a year? Would this be the end of me as a movie critic, or even as a functional human being should I retreat into a shell-shocked state of hideous contemplation of all the long hours I’ve wasted on the likes of The Benchwarmers and Phat Girlz and Anchorman?
Nope. It’s much, much worse than that. I may never again be able to pass up a movie I’m certain is going to be torture: “What if it’s Talladega Nights all over again?” I’ll ask myself. It doesn’t matter that 99.99 percent of the time, the movies that look bad turn out to be even worse. Talladega Nights so blew away my expectations that it created a kind of thrilled high that instantly addicted me. I will be forever in search of another shot of it. I’ll be 180 years old on my deathbed and someone will ask, Don’t I regret having dedicated so much of my life to Scary Movie 44 and Final Destination 87 and Star Wars Episode 93: The Seduction of Jar-Jar? And I’ll say, Listen, sonny, did I ever tell you about Talladega Nights waaaay back in ’Ought Six…?

This is the truth of it: I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard — I’m talking soda-comin’-out-my-nose-hard laughter. A lot of it was the laughter of surprise, of the I-canNOT-believe-they-just-did-that kind. That the film is so smart: one joke requires that you know who Camus is. That the film is so sweet: Ricky Bobby is dumb as a bag of spark plugs, but he’s actually quite kind and generous and even emotionally vulnerable. That the film is so subversive: this is one big bitch-slap to American culture. Or as some term it, “culture.”

That was the real shock to my expectations. Big Hollywood movies simply do not do this. They do not invite audiences in with a hearty “Hey, come see this goofy movie about fast cars starring human cartoon Will Ferrell!” — the subtext of which is, as it always is with films designed to appeal to wide audiences: “Great effort will be made to reassure you that all is right with the world and that you’re perfect just the way you are. America rocks, dude!” — and then turn around and go, “Ha! Losers! You’re living in a world where your greatest accomplishment is buying useless crap and where people constantly spout Jesus’ name but are horrible to their fellows and you call yourself civilized? Look: here’s this French guy — French — and he’s gay, and he’s a better person than you are! Take that, American homophobes!”

Maybe — maybe — a holiday-season Oscar-baiting Serious Drama from a Hollywood studio might dare to hint at a suggestion that The Way Things Are is perhaps not the way they should be. But a bit of summer fluff aimed at people who do not want to think when they go to the movies? Unbe-freakin’-lievable. (It’s a weird coincidence that soon after I saw Little Miss Sunshine, which prompted me to develop my theory about how movies either reinforce or challenge the status quo, along comes Talladega Nights, the absolute last movie in the world I would have expected to do some challenging. This is the kind of astonishment I long for at the movies.)

The gay French guy is Jean Girard — played with overboard abandon by Sacha Baron Cohen (Madagascar) — and he’s a Formula One racer brought in to compete with the NASCAR champion Ricky Bobby (Ferrell: Curious George, Winter Passing), for reasons too complicated to go into and too hilarious to spoil. And while there are jokes about homosexuality, they are not mean-spirited or vicious — they do actually send up the discomfort of straight men toward gays rather than buttress it, and the homo stereotypes are entirely positive ones: gay French guys, Talladega Nights has no hesitation in suggesting, are smarter, more competent, sexier, and way more cultured than you are, NASCAR dudes. And maybe the most outrageous and most hilarious moment in the film is the final one, which embraces that idea wholeheartedly.

Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing but bashing of America and Americans going on. My favorite scene in the film might be the one that encapsulates Ricky — and his best friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly: A Prairie Home Companion, Dark Water) — as basically harmless, happy morons whose biggest fault, at this early stage of the story, is their unthinking self-centeredness. Ricky’s family — including his materialistic gold-digger of a wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), and their sons, Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell), two spoiled-rotten brats, and by god, the movie takes to task the spoiled-rottenness of brats and the parents who made ’em that way, too — are sitting around a dinner table laden with the finest overprocessed fast-food meal money can buy (the abundance of logos and “corporate sponsors” and such becomes its own kind of parody). It starts out ridiculous, with the contractually obligated product placement in Ricky’s grace prayer, but it turns weirdly sweet as the family discusses how they see Jesus and what he means to them. Ricky likes the “Christmas Jesus,” the “baby Jesus,” but Cal sees Jesus as having the wings of an eagle and rocking out to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the boys suspect that Jesus may be an evil-fighting ninja. It’s an odd testament to the power of Jesus, and it’s really too bad, of course, that hardly any of these people seem compelled to actually follow the teachings of Jesus, but it suggests a place to start fixing The Way Things Are. You know, like this: Look, America, you’ve got the “nice” part down; now it’s time to start working on the unthinking self-centeredness… as Ricky does through the course of Talladega Nights.

Which would be an intriguing theme for an independently produced low-budget drama to be espousing. For a blockbuster summer comedy, good lord, it’s downright flabbergasting.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references and brief comic violence

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • gratte

    Maybe you should develop a sense of humor before you go reviewing comedies?

    BTW – how the hell did your neurotic review here get put on Google’s top news links?

  • gratte

    Oh, nevermind. Perplexing. Have a nice day.

  • Boy, did you ever hit the nail on the head with your review of this suprisingly subversive little gem. I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as you were, but I was still shocked at how much I enjoyed it.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    Gratte: Did my review somehow suggest that I did not find this film funny?

    Clearly, though, you feel that I lack of sense of humor because I do not share YOUR sense of humor. Do you feel that this is an attitude helps you get through life?

    I guess Google considers me a reliable source for professional film reviews, which does not necessarily mean “film reviews that Gratte will invariably agree with.” See, there’s a whole element of a thing called “opinion” involved in criticism. But perhaps I could better address your problems with my review if you could, you know, *explain* them at all.

  • Phil Urich

    Huh. Oddly enough, you have basically the *opposite* opinion of the movie from a critic in my local newspaper (guy’s name is Todd Babiak, and he’s one of those writers who often writes things to which one thinks “well, I totally disagree with that opinion, but it was well articulated and entertaining to read”; much like your own reviews, really!).

    He had the reverse opinion of the two movies (those being Anchorman and Talladega Nights); pretty much just swap your opinions of the two movies and there you have the comparison between the films.

    This made me think. Is it perhaps that both movies have many of the same guts to them, but toeing the line as they do it just falls down to person-to-person whether someone sees it in either of the given movies?

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    I’m not sure what you mean about the same “guts.” Can you explain?

  • MBI

    Now, see, I would differ in your review, in that I didn’t think we were meant to like snotty elitist Girard any more than intolerant retard Ricky Bobby. I wonder if that’s a reflection of my own bias. You, a New York left-winger, see it as just a satire of the right, and I, someone who is resolutely middle-of-the-road, see it as double-edged (although the red-staters definitely get it harder). I wonder if genuine Nascar fans see this is an affectionate you-might-be-a-redneck sendup and boo the villainous gay Frenchie.

    Of course, while I thought it was very funny and not at all mean-spirited, it’s still a very stereotype-driven movie. I’m not sure I support the idea that the right/left divide comes down to smart and smug vs. dumb and loud, as I can think of many of both kinds on either side.

    BTW, I fail to see the misogyny in Anchorman.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “Now, see, I would differ in your review, in that I didn’t think we were meant to like snotty elitist Girard any more than intolerant retard Ricky Bobby.”

    I don’t think you need to like Girard in order to see that the film is suggesting that he’s smarter, more cultured, etc, than Ricky Bobby. And I’m not sure how “genuine Nascar fans” can see Girard as a villain when Ricky himself eventually refuses to see him that way and even embraces — um, literally — the idea of Girard. And can we really say that Girard is “left-wing”? We don’t know anything about his politics or his cultural outlook beyond his disdain for America — and that doesn’t necessarily need to be a “liberal” thing.

  • Phil Urich

    By “guts” I mean the living organs inside of them, I guess. Maybe not the “guts”, then, but the heart pumping the blood that flows through the veins? Apologies, I didn’t consciously think my poorly-worded metaphor through very well ahead of time.

  • joey

    Since when are ethanol and methanol non-renewable resources? Racing is doing more research on the use of renewable liquid fuels than anybody. They even have grand prix cars running on biodiesel which is simply veggie oil with most of the soap removed.

  • Ben Nash

    Jesus FUCK NUTS! Okay maybe a movie this bad might actually do some good and be the standard for what not to do. IT SUCKED FUCKING BALLS! Yeah it clearly made fun and ridiculed all those who actually went to see Will Ferrell do a Nascar movie, and it did so right directly in front of their faces. It was like seeing an environmentalist hippie walk right by a soda can on the ground next to an empty trash can, and they comment on how lazy people are, and then just leave the can on the ground. All these fat-ass-soda-drinking-fast-food-eatin love handles sat squeezed in the theater fat incubators laughing at themselves. IT WAS FUCKING GROSS! But back to the horrific film,…if any one can really justify this film as actually completing a parody, a point, a story, or even just a simple tool to joke with, then someone has settled. Settled in for complacency. That’s it, you gave up, Your life will now suck forever. PLEASE hope for better movies, better art, and better entertainment.

  • I guess you’re hitting bigtime, MAJ. Of course, I loved Old School, so what do I know. Will Ferrel in LAND OF THE LOST for the win!

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “Since when are ethanol and methanol non-renewable resources? Racing is doing more research on the use of renewable liquid fuels than anybody. They even have grand prix cars running on biodiesel which is simply veggie oil with most of the soap removed.”

    I’m not sure that biofuels are gonna be the solution to our energy woes. How much arable land can we turn over to producing corn and sugar to burn in our cars?

  • MaryAnn

    “Jesus FUCK NUTS! Okay maybe a movie this bad might actually do some good and be the standard for what not to do. IT SUCKED FUCKING BALLS!”

    Ah, the eloquence. And they say our children isn’t learning…

  • Gloria

    Damn, I really liked this movie. Smart for a supposedly dumb flick. It was sketchy in a number of parts, but there was definitely hilarity to be had, especially the ruminations on the nature and appearance of Jesus, and Ricky’s father, as played by Gary Cole.

    I’m confused by the hostility towards the parody of NASCAR, since all heroes and villains, idiots and sophisticates, were participants in the NASCAR culture. Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, but while I did see shades of George W. in Will Ferrell’s characterization, I hardly saw it as a scatching political satire. It’s just laughs, guys.

  • Ah, the eloquence. And they say our children isn’t learning…

    It’s ain’t learning. Get it right.

  • Brittany

    I agree with you completely about Talladega Nights! I loved Old School, but I hated Wedding Crashers and Anchorman… so I went into this movie thinking it would be like the last two bad comedies that I saw. But I LOVED it and I can’t wait to see it again… yay!

  • J-RiZZle

    Okay. What the hell? How can anyone think Talladega Nights was better than Anchorman? Come on. Talladega Nights was great (I watched it twice) but to say Anchorman was not? Anchorman along with 40-year old Virgin and Wedding Crashers are definately in my Top 5 list of funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time.

    And a note to all those NASCAR fans that are pissed off at this movie I just want to say WHAT DID YOU THINK IT WAS GOING TO BE? It’s got Will Ferrell Come on.

    Jesus some people are stupid.

    And another thing. Why is it the only ones who agree with the reviewer on this one are female? This can also explain why most women I talk to don’t think Wedding Crashers is funny either. I guess females don’t like the fact that although in real life misogyny isn’t funny, it’s freakin’ HILARIOUS in movies and on TV.

  • MaryAnn

    Check out my review of *Wedding Crashers,* J-Rizzle — I found it hilarious.

    Perhaps you can explain what is so funny about misogyny in movies…

    Also, how can you tell who among the commenters is female and and who is male? Even assuming that those who use gender-specific names are telling the truth about their gender, what about those non-gender-specific handles?

  • J-RiZZle

    That’s good that you found Wedding Crashers funny.
    I think you’re the second or third female I’ve talked to that could stand the first 20 minutes. (I actually think the opening dialouge before the credits is enough to make me want to watch over and over again.)
    And it’s not just misogyny that’s funny in movies. It’s anything that people can’t or shouldn’t get away with in real life. It’s the movies. They’re based on humor that crosses the line so to speak. For example in Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby’s two children. Everything they say is hilarious. If I had children and they talked like that it wouldn’t be funny it would be disrespectful.
    I guess it all depends on your outlook on misogyny. If a man really hates a woman, I guess it’s not funny. But to put women, or men for that matter, in a position to where they’re laughed at for being a woman or a man then to me that’s funny. By the way, what was so misogynistic about Anchorman? Was it the way the men treat the new female co-worker? Because I think it all ended up okay in the end.

  • MaryAnn

    “For example in Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby’s two children. Everything they say is hilarious.”

    But the film frowns on their behavior — it does not celebrate it, the way, say, any given sitcom does. Most depictions of children being rude and acting smarter than their elders is depicted in a way that says, Aw, isn’t that cute. *Talladega Nights* says the opposite: “Isn’t this obnoxious?” That’s the difference.

    What’s misogynist about *Anchorman* is that it does not condemn the way the Ferrell character treats women — it celebrates it.

  • Padraig

    MaryAnn, I love this site, and love your reviews. And I say this with all the deepest sincerity I can muster.

    I don’t know what movie you saw when you supposedly watched Anchorman. I beg you, take the inspiration you saw in Ricky Bobby, and go watch Anchorman again. At the very least, go to youtube and watch the ‘Afternoon delight” bit. Tell me, while looking directly into my eyes, that that shit is not hilarious. I defy you to do so.

    Either way, I’m definitely gonna see Ricky Bobby now. You’re review alone sold it to me.

  • Padraig


    Because all of us, on some level, love lamp too.

  • MaryAnn

    “Tell me, while looking directly into my eyes, that that shit is not hilarious. I defy you to do so.”

    Not hilarious. Sorry.

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