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.
(Technorati tags: Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell, NASCAR)