The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, August 31, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Full review behind the jump

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
: Adam McKay
: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
: Jimmy Miller, Judd Apatow
: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Leslie Bibb, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Greg Germann, Amy Adams, Houston Tumlin, Grayson Russell, Molly Shannon

Vanishingly few people in Hollywood actually write comedy these days, if by comedy you mean something that from the time of conception to delivery made a few people laugh. We get a lot of “comedy-esque” in film and television, but it’s sort of like grape-flavoring : deep down we know it’s a chemical that was birthed in a lab from an equation, and truth be told it doesn’t taste like a grape at all, but somewhere along the way we all just agreed to accept it as grape and react accordingly. We recognize things that are designed to resemble comedy, and thus conclude we were entertained. There’s always a laugh track to tell us it’s our own fault for not finding it funny.

But Will Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay still write comedy, bless them: rough, impolite, imperfect, confounding comedy that when you’re not labeling it shamefully stupid, you’re laughing at it in spite of yourself. Because they write the kind of humor that truly catches you off-guard and triggers an organic
reaction, rather than signaling you like a trained porpoise. In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, there’s a kind of love that accompanies each gag and dimwitted dialogue curlicue, an optimistic hope that they can jab a real laugh out of you. Even when they don’t succeed, and they don’t as often as they did in their more thoroughly-realized previous collaboration, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, they earn affection because they respect us enough to try and not just retread old formulas.

Formulas, in fact, are the source of most of their fun. They get much mileage out of how thoroughly, even willingly, American audiences absorb clichés – as if every event we experience from sports to news to life itself should be crammed into a 3-Act shoebox complete with Early Success, Betrayal and Tragedy, Hitting Rock Bottom, and Healing Old Wounds/Rediscovery of the Self. In this movie, champion NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) suffers a car accident and subsequently starts acting like a cripple. He’s not actually crippled in any medical sense, but what good is a setback like that without the inspiring learning-to-walk-again sequence?

Ricky is born for speed, literally he’s born at speed: his shiftless pot-dealing father (Gary Cole) is so thrilled that his muscle car hits 100mph on the way to the hospital that he drives right by it. He then more or less vanishes from young Ricky’s life, but shows up just enough to imprint on the single-minded boy that finishing first is all that matters in life.

And as a grown-up he’s very good at it, with a little help from his best friend Cal (John C. Reilly), who provides drafting cover during races and does what he can to accept always coming in second. Their relationship is the most amusing one in the movie, based on a mutual appreciation of things that are cool, that bond is stronger than any trial they’ll go through. He even sits at Ricky’s right hand at the dinner table, while Ricky thanks baby Jesus and “the good folks at Powerade” for his mansion, his photogenic family, and the bounty of brand name junk food provided by contractual obligation. The downright ridiculous product sponsorship in NASCAR provides a ripe target – at one point Ricky plasters a decal right across his windshield, obscuring his view of the track, because there’s no room left on the car itself.

Somehow the filmmakers know just what real-life brand names, deployed in the right place, can earn a laugh. There’s a scene where the characters eat at Appleby’s. Why is that funny before they’ve even made a joke within that environment? I think it’s partially because, watching most film and television, you’d never imagine the writers even know what Appleby’s is, nor the place it holds in the dining repertoire of the average American family. Here, they show that they get it, and invite us to poke fun at our own eager embrace of slickly-packaged mediocrity.

But Ricky Bobby’s ride on the honey wagon of corporate underwriting and a hot blonde spouse (Leslie Bibb) is severely threatened by the arrival of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G), a gifted but smarmy French driver from the “Formula Un” circuit. Jean delights in violating the comfort zones of the NASCAR drivers, flaunting his loving husband Gregory (Andy Richter) and tirelessly listing all of France’s contributions to modern civilization (challenged to name an American contribution in response, the drivers’ first idea is “Chinese Food”). Ferrell’s stolid dunderhead Ricky, who borrows much of his clipped drawl from his George W. Bush impersonation, finds its perfect foil in Cohen, who seems in his dialogue to be inventing new vowels on the fly.

Which begs the question of why Greg Germann, playing the racing team’s venal owner Larry Dennit, Jr., is even in the movie. Every time the movie cuts back to him plotting against Ricky Bobby just reminds us that he’s a straight man in a movie that doesn’t need one. Ferrell and McKay’s style of humor is more in the vein of free volleying nonsense that anyone can participate in – when at any point any character has the right to stop the narrative and comment on something’s ridiculousness, it injects a little challenge into each scene. Characters, even minor ones, can follow a tangent into the quirkiest corner of their brain to find a non sequiter gem.

Sometimes this doesn’t work, like with just about everything said by Ricky’s junior mechanic Glen (Jack McBrayer). Other times it achieves a priceless perfection, like the ever-worsening ideas Cal and pit crew chief Lucius (Michael Clarke Duncan) come up with for getting a knife out of Ricky’s leg. And then there’s Amy Adams, an Academy Award-nominee last year for Junebug, who must create in one long stretch of dialogue a gathering storm of passion that in its own bizarre, unforgettable way is comparable to when Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a single five-minute scene in Network.

Ultimately Talladega Nights is not willing to march so deep into the country of the surreal as Anchorman did, and anyone coming to see racing action is likely to be disappointed by the vague zooming around on-screen here. I didn’t laugh at everything but I laughed a lot, and whether or not you share that response I think the critical judgment must be to praise the filmmakers. As with the simpleton Ricky Bobby himself, their pure desire to excel is winning on its own.


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