A film review by Craig J. Koban

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY jjj
½ 

2006, PG-13, 105 mins.

 

Will Ferrell: Ricky Bobby / John C. Reilly: Cal Naughton Jr. / Michael Clarke Duncan: Lucius Washington / Jane Lynch: Lucy Bobby / Gary Cole: Reese Bobby / Amy Adams: Susan

Sacha Baron Coen: Jean Girard

Directed by Adam McKay / Written by McKay and Will Ferrell

Ricky Bobby is a doer, not a thinker, and since he is played by none other than the great Will Ferrell, he most certainly does not do very much of the latter.  With Ferrell channeling his prerequisite goofiness and capriciousness into the title role, TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY is yet another screen comedy that generates a lot of outrageous laughs and genuine amusement.  More than anything, the film serves as a useful reminder to the prudish that the cinema – at times – does not need to have lofty ambitions in order to be a categorical success.  RICKY BOBBY is the epitome of a work that only wants to delight and entertain its audience with its sidesplitting and ridiculous antics.

More than anything, full credit needs to be given to Ferrell, who is the undeniable quarterback to this whole wacky enterprise.  If I were to review Will Ferrell on effort alone, I would give him four stars every time.  Like the great screen comedians of the past, Ferrell knows that the way to make us laugh is to do absolutely anything to generate chuckles, both big and small.  Sure, some of the gags in RICKY BOBBY are sometimes more inane than funny, but at the core of them all is a virtuoso performer who goes for broke with every single opportunity that is presented to him.

It’s no wonder why Ferrell has readily ascended to the top of the silver screen comedy ladder.  You just have to admire his boundless energy, enthusiasm, and overall commitment that he brings to his creations.   Despite the fact that he plays things improbably broad at time, Ferrell is still able to garner howls from even the smallest of gesture or look.  Whether it be saying a small dinner prayer or running around in his underwear screaming to the sky for Tom Cruise and his “witchcraft” to save him, Ferrell is able to shine in one elaborately crafted and hilariously mounted routine after another.  As a champion of being unapologetically goofy and stupid, Ferrell should receive some sort of honorary Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards telecast.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS is funny in an illusory kind of way.  Oftentimes, I laughed out loud at the simplest of sights and would later find myself tearing up with glee at the strangest of images.  What do I mean by strange?  Well, take one extended scene, for instance, which shows NASCAR racing champion Bobby in a hospital.  Never mind why he is in a hospital, he’s just there.  Him being there is not funny, but what slays me is the fact that he stays there and gets around in a wheelchair because he believes that he is paralyzed from the waist down.  Obviously, his condition is completely psychosomatic, but this does not stop the hapless and stupid Bobby from plunging a sharp knife into his thigh to “prove” that he is paralyzed.  Predictably, he quickly coils over in utter pain, all while we lose ourselves in the ridiculousness of the moment.  Odd?  Beyond reproach.  Funny as hell?  You betcha.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS is a sure-fire masterpiece of tomfoolery and downright idiocy.  The film is incredibly dumb, so much so that it became hard not to laugh at even the subtlest of jokes.  Very few films are able to hook their audiences in and never let go.  This film is not high art, per se, but it is able to achieve something noteworthy that most screen comedies only wish they could.  It’s a parade of such unrelenting nonsense for its 100-plus minutes that has such a wanton appreciation for absurdity and cartoonish shenanigans. 

I laughed out loud within the film’s first 30 seconds (thanks to an obviously misquoted title card attributed to a former first lady) and by that early time the film’s joyous and unparalleled childishness becomes incredibly infectious.  TALLADEGA NIGHTS is so infantile that even throwaway lines become masterstrokes of silliness.  “What does Diablo mean,” a character asks Ricky at one point.  “It’s Spanish for fighting chicken,” the clueless Bobby deadpans.  Reading that is funny, but hearing Ferrell deliver it with a straight face is irreproachably droll.  Then again, dialogue like this seems to be his strong point.  He did, after all, tell audiences that “San Diego” was a German word for “a whale’s vagina” in ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY.

If ANCHORMAN was an uproarious and crafty satire on the world of 1970’s television journalism set during the women’s lib movement, then TALLADEGA NIGHTS follows its same stylistic lead.  Both Ferrell and co-writer/director, Adam McKay (who also helmed the Ron Burgundy film), are able to successfully lampoon yet another male, testosterone driven arena – the sport of NASCAR racing.  In a way, the film walks a bit of a high wire act.  It both shows a perverse level of respect for the sport (which, let’s face it, is incredibly popular in the parts of the US) while delivering a lot of subversive material that is ripe with just about every southern stereotype.  However, RICKY BOBBY is not an offensive film.  Bobby himself is a red neck to the tenth degree, but his manic and perseverant dim-wittedness makes him a person not to chastise, but to laugh at instantly.  When Ferrell launches himself into one of his trademark, improvisational verbal outbursts, how anyone could take him seriously is beyond me.

The title character is a hillbilly and an absolute moron, but he’s a likable ignoramus despite his  narcissism.  There has never been a man so in love with himself like Ricky Bobby ("I am the best; I urinate success!”), but his egotism and tunnel vision is what makes him a likable southern dude.  Yet, do not mistake this bogus docu-comedy as a tale of an underdog that aspires to reach the top.  No sir.  This film is about a guy that reaches the top of his cherished sport almost instantly (well, within the first few minutes of the movie) and then tries to do whatever is necessary to stay there. 

As a matter of fact, Bobby has always had racing in his blood (in a funny opening scene, we see his birth, which occurs in the back seat of a car doing 100-plus miles an hour).  He grows up without his father (the very funny Gary Cole, who proves both here and in the wonderfully funny OFFICE SPACE, why he should do comedy more often) and ends up being a member of a NASCAR pit crew with his best buddy, Cal Naughton Jr. (the equally funny John C. Reilly).  They both have a  shake n’ bake symmetry that only lifelong pals have, which assists them later.

You see, through a stroke of luck, Bobby soon goes from pit crewmember to NASCAR’S number one racer.  Cal runs interference on the track for him and essentially allows him to finish first at all times (Booby is so popular and such a big star that he does not kiss babies, but rather signs their foreheads).  Life certainly becomes a gold mine for him.  He sees all of the spoils, which includes money, a luxurious house, lavish endorsement deals, and a “smoking hot wife” (played by the smoking hot Leslie Bibb), whom he goes out of his way to thank Jesus for at very dinner table prayer. 

However, much like Ron Burgundy, destiny throws him a curveball in the form of an unwanted opponent.  For Burgundy, it was a female reporter.  For Bobby, it’s the arrival of a French racecar driver names Jean Girard (Ali G himself, Sacha Baron Cohen).  They have a very awkward introduction to one another in a bar, where the prissy and cultured Girard decides to play jazz on the juke box at a tavern frequented by Bobby (gasp!).  This scene plays off well, during which a challenge is made and concludes with Girard breaking Bobby’s arm literally in half.  At one point he has Bobby pinned to the top of a pool table and tells him that if he does not say “I love crepes,” then he will break his arm.  After a very amusing semantic debate about whether crepes and pancakes are one in the same, Bobby refuses and his arm gains an extra joint.

Unfortunately for him, his new injury sidelines him, not to mention a horrific car crash during a competition which categorically features the film’s funniest moment where Bobby escapes the wreck, looks okay, but proceeds to strip and run around chaotically in his underwear because he thinks he’s on fire (there is a heedless sense of reckless abandon of humility by Ferrell here).  After a long stay in the hospital, Bobby looses everything (his wife decides to marry Cal; he gets mad when Ricky does not show for the funeral). 

Forced to live with his mother, Bobby hits rock bottom, that is until his alcoholic bum of a father shows up to train Bobby to re-enter the world of NASCAR racing.  His training methods are as unorthodox as anything Mr. Miyagi could have dreamt up.  At one point he makes him drive blindfolded so he can feel, not see, the road.  Bobby immediately drives straight into a house (while under the wreckage, he dryly shouts out, “I couldn’t feel it daddy”).  Later, in the film’s second funniest instance, Bobby’s dad makes him enter a car with a live cougar so he can eliminate all fear while driving.  Of course, he opens the door, the wild cat leaps on him, all while Bobby screams, “I can’t eliminate fear; I got a cougar on me!”

You see, that’s the key to this film – the anticipation of jokes and then the payoff.  The guffaws are aplenty and they come at times with such a rapid-fire ferocity.  Some of the other jokes are more subtle, as is the case with an extended dinner table scene where Bobby goes on what just may be the funniest dinner prayer sequences in movie history (which involves a long dissertation on why he likes the diaper wearing, baby Jesus from Christmas, not the robe clad, bearded adult savior).

The rest of the cast joins in on the fun and they all are given moments to shine.  Reilly is especially unintelligible and slow as Bobby’s semi-loyal comrade in NASCAR arms, and Michael Clarke Duncan gives an energy to his performance as Bobby’s pit boss (his has a darkly hilarious moment at the hospital - where Bobby has stuck a knife in himself - to which he tries to get it out by stabbing another knife into the wound for better leverage).  Amy Adams (Academy Award nominee for last year’s JUNEBUG) gives a motivational speech to Bobby when he’s at his lowest (the pay off is great).  However, this is Ferrell’s movie all the way though.  No one – and I mean no one - can match his comic tenacity, gusto, and overall craziness.  Only an actor like Ferrell can pull off a scene where he screams and pleads for an imaginary fire to be put out while shouting in the sky for the spirits of Allah, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Cruise to save his soul.

Just when you thought no more films about competitive car racing could be made – like the forgettable and routine DAYS OF THUNDER and the impossibly wretched DRIVEN – along comes TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY to fill the void.  As an absurdist farce that serves two purposes (one: to be a riotous send-up of the NASCAR racing climate; two: to further highlight Will Ferrell’s insidiously daft and limitless comic liveliness) TALLADEGA NIGHTS is a noteworthy achievement in moronic and asinine humor.  The film may not be the exact equal of Ferrell’s gigantically funny ANCHORMAN from 2004, but RICKY BOBBY is still one of 2006’s biggest giggle riots with a laugh quotient big enough to fill a racetrack.  And at the heart of this whole wacky enterprise is Ferrell, who perfects his abilities here for playing roles with a slapsticky indolence and penchant for being as intellectually bankrupt as possible.  Sure, he does not hit a home run at every comic turn, but its Ferrell’s very willingness to be unbridled, unhinged, and boundless in his mischievous set pieces that makes RICKY BOBBY hard to resist.  As a companion film to ANCHORMAN, TALLADEGA NIGHTS is another near perfect bit of chuckleheaded ecstasy that speeds passed the checkered flag and successfully across the finish line.

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