‘Talladega Nights’: The Men Are Rowdy, the Cars Are Fast and the Product Placement Is Extreme (Published 2006) (2024)



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Movie Review

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Directed by Adam McKay
Comedy, Sport
1h 48m

By A.O. Scott

For those still clinging to the notion that the United States is divided into Red and Blue, Nascar and Hollywood would seem to dwell on opposite sides of the cultural divide. “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is hardly the first movie to challenge this simple-minded view of American popular culture — see also “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” and of course “Cars” — but it does an admirably thorough job of debunking it.

After all, movies (and movie fans) have always had a soft spot for whining engines and screeching tires. But these days the deeper bond between auto racing and popular moviemaking lies in a shared passion for corporate sponsorship. The vehicles in “Talladega Nights” — which was made with the cooperation of Nascar — are covered with logos and brand names, and the movie itself may break new records for product placements per frame.

It’s all in fun of course. As a good-hearted spoof of the folkways of stock-car racing, the movie is happy to mock the sport’s eagerness to sell prime uniform and chassis space to sponsors like Perrier, Wonder Bread and Old Spice. It also is tickled at the eating habits of its fast-driving characters, who wash down Domino’s Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken with Coca-Cola and Budweiser and, when they want a high-end night out, head for the nearest Applebee’s. You can be sure that all these companies paid handsomely for the privilege of such lampooning, which even extends to the movie’s single funniest joke, a suppertime blessing brought to you by PowerAde.

Really, though, the brand that powers this ragged, intermittently uproarious fusion of sketch-comedy goofing and driving around in circles is Will Ferrell, who wrote the screenplay (with Adam McKay, the director) and served as an executive producer, in addition to running around on a race track in his underpants. He does a lot more than that, needless to say, but Mr. Ferrell’s willingness to strip down to his skivvies is one of his trademarks.

It is also a rare movie-star display of solidarity with those American men who, whether out of laziness or principle, disdain sunlight, proper nutrition, body-hair maintenance and abdominal exercise. Part of Mr. Ferrell’s appeal is surely that he is one of them. O.K., one of us.

He also has a genius for sniffing out pop-cultural fixtures and embodying them in a way that goes beyond easy, obvious parody. Like Ron Burgundy, the hero of “Anchorman,” Ricky Bobby is at once a creature of pure, extravagant absurdity and a curiously vulnerable, sympathetic figure. The son of a “semi-professional stock car racer and amateur tattoo artist” played by Gary Cole, Ricky is born in the back seat of a speeding Chevelle and goes on to glory on the Nascar circuit. His sidekick and best buddy is Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), a sweet, dim fellow content to come in second behind his pal. (Their motto, “shake and bake,” may be an honest homage to a popular product rather than a paid endorsem*nt, but who really knows?) Ricky, by turns childlike and ferociously competitive, has some unresolved Daddy issues, which unfortunately weigh down the last third of “Talladega Nights” with perfunctory sentimentality.

Ricky and Cal are from North Carolina, home of the stock car king Richard Petty, and it requires no sensitivity training to recognize that they are stereotypes of a certain kind of Southern manhood. Not that anyone is likely to be too offended; from the old “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show to the songs of Toby Keith, caricature and Rebel pride tend to keep close company.

In any case the two good ol’ boys are soon confronted with a designated bad guy who incarnates an entirely antithetical stereotype — or, rather, invents a new one: the gay French Formula One driver. Jean Girard, as this nemesis is called, is played by Sacha Baron Cohen of “Ali G” fame with a demented sang-froid that suggests a synthesis of Peter Sellers and Pee-wee Herman. Mr. Cohen proves himself to be Mr. Ferrell’s equal and opposite, a comic dialectic sealed with the summer’s best on-screen kiss.

Like most movies of this kind, “Talladega Nights” is as good as its craziest riffs, which aren’t quite strong or various enough to fill out a whole feature. The funniest scenes have some of the improvised, pseudo-vérité flavor of Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” but Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay are less rigorous than Mr. Guest and his collaborators, preferring easy laughs to carefully turned comic insights. Still, at the high points — when Mr. Ferrell and Mr. Reilly start jawboning, when Leslie Bibb slyly steals a scene as Ricky’s frosty, gold-digging wife, when Mr. Reilly and Michael Clarke Duncan try to remove a fork from Mr. Ferrell’s thigh, or whenever Mr. Cohen opens his mouth — laughs are hard to suppress.

As a cultural artifact, “Talladega Nights” is both completely phony and, therefore, utterly authentic. Or, to put it differently: this movie is the real thing. It’s finger lickin’ good. It’s eatin’ good in the neighborhood. It’s the King of Beers. It’s Wonder Bread.

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Like any respectable country ballad, it has cussin’, fightin’, cheatin’ and drinkin’.


The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Opens today nationwide.

Directed by Adam McKay; written by Will Ferrell and Mr. McKay; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Brent White; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Clayton R. Hartley; produced by Jimmy Miller and Judd Apatow; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 110 minutes.

WITH: Will Ferrell (Ricky Bobby), John C. Reilly (Cal Naughton Jr.), Sacha Baron Cohen (Jean Girard), Gary Cole (Reese Bobby), Michael Clarke Duncan (Lucius Washington) and Leslie Bibb (Carley Bobby).

See more on: Will Ferrell, National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR)



‘Talladega Nights’: The Men Are Rowdy, the Cars Are Fast and the Product Placement Is Extreme (Published 2006) (2024)


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