Beaks Takes an Early Trip to ‘Talladega’

     April 25, 2006

Ricky Bobby, the Michael Jordan of NASCAR played to jut-jawed perfection by Will Ferrell – who, more than any racing great, seems to be channeling Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher – in Talladega Nights, loves to go fast and finish first. And when he doesn’t finish first, he doesn’t finish at all, preferring to smash up his high-performance stock car while hewing to the philosophy of his no-account drunk of a father: “If you ain’t first, you’re last”. Luckily for Ricky Bobby, he’s one hell of a driver as he brags to an on-track reporter, “When I wake up in the morning, I piss excellence.” And his winning ways have netted him millions of dollars in endorsements, a smokin’ hot wife (Leslie Bibb), two bratty children who enjoy threatening their decrepit grandfather with physical violence, and the unflagging loyalty of his best friend and racing team partner, Cal Naughton (John C. Reilly).

As in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, Ferrell and longtime collaborator Adam McKay have created a hideously overconfident buffoon whose unceasing boasts and incredibly boorish manner set him up for a steep second act fall and a remarkably goofy third act redemption. This time, however, the ridiculous attitudes they’re lampooning are frighteningly current and depressingly prevalent, especially among NASCAR fans, whose hostility toward interlopers gets a savage working over with the introduction of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a gay French Formula One driver gunning for Ricky Bobby’s title. Though Talladega Nights is a broad comedy first, and a damned effective one at that, it’s also parodying the kind of macho posturing that tends to get this country into trouble. And the fact that it’s coming from Hollywood just might piss off NASCAR Nation should they decide to take umbrage at jokes lampooning their devout Christianity, unabashed xenophobia and general crudity.

By playing up Jean Girard’s homosexuality to such a garish degree (he’s not only out and proud, he’s married to an outré dog trainer played by Andy Richter), McKay treads a fine line between spoof and stereotype, and the film’s inability (at present) to fully exploit the satirical possibilities of these risky elements leaves one feeling a touch disappointed when the filmmakers ultimately opt for a rousing finale. In Anchorman, Ron Burgandy just needed to be disgraced Ricky Bobby, on the other hand, has to make peace with the notion of finishing second to an aggressively gay Frenchman who drives the Perrier car and enjoys jazz. That’s a tall order for any red-blooded American male, and though McKay does finally make them squirm, he also lets them off the hook more easily than he should. Accepting defeat at the hands of a foreigner in a sport invented by southern bootleggers is the stuff of revolution.

And McKay could likely be hanged for such a transgression, so maybe it’s better that he chose to indulge his absurdist inclinations in lieu of antagonizing humorless NASCAR fans. The biggest surprise of Talladega Nights is that it’s much closer to the unfettered zaniness of Anchorman than the production draft indicated. Reilly’s pathetically passive Naughton is the prime beneficiary of McKay’s loosening of the reins, and he responds with such scene stealing ferocity that the character’s been upgraded to secondary antagonist status. How Naughton involuntarily steals Ricky Bobby’s wife, and then comes to resent him for failing to attend their wedding turns out to be one of the film’s more rewarding running gags (particularly when it gets an unexpected tweak in the third act). Cohen’s great, too, especially when riffing with Ferrell over the possibility of borrowing his copy of Highlander in the midst of what’s supposed to be a tense tête-à-tête. And Gary Cole continues to be one of the most severely underutilized comedic actors working today as Ricky Bobby’s ne’er-do-well father Reese Bobby, who tries to reignite his son’s passion for racing via a series of unconventional training missions (e.g. driving with a live cougar uncooperatively riding shotgun).

If Talladega Nights falls short of Anchorman, it’ll certainly do. Though it’ll probably arrive in a more truncated state than the cut shown tonight at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, it’s still destined to connect with the predominately male audience that’s since elevated the previous Ferrell/McKay collaboration to Caddyshack status. (The good news: Talladega is much funnier than Stripes.) It could’ve been more, but that also might’ve defeated the purpose besides, McKay’s got plenty of time to work up to his Groundhog Day. Joke for joke, there probably won’t be a funnier film all year.

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