Let’s not mince words: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a terrible movie. The plot is forced, the situations hackneyed, the sheer amount of product placement (even for a film about NASCAR racing) is atrocious, and the characters are unbelievably inconsistent.
But it’s funny.
Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby begins as a boy so obsessed with speed, he grabs his mom’s car at the age of five and takes it onto the highway. He’s so obsessed with winning that at the age of ten, when he sees his absentee father (Gary Coleman) for the first time in eight years, he takes his alcohol-fueled advice – “if you’re not first, you’re last” – 100% literally. He’s laughed at, of course, by his classmates, except for best friend Cal Naughton Jr. (who grows up to be played by John C. Reilly), but twenty-odd years later, he’s a NASCAR racing legend. His signature move is the “slingshot”: Cal (who’s also a racer) gets to the number 2 or number 3 position, allows Ricky to drive ahead of him, pushes him along for a bit with the front of his bumper (unlike Cars, don’t expect accuracy in this movie), and finally allows him to take off with a burst of such speed he always takes number one (Cal comes in at number two). He marries the first woman who flashes him, will promote anything (and I mean anything - even tampons), sign anything (including babies), and allows his sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, to do and say whatever the hell they want. Including the phrase “whatever the hell we want.” (There’s a great scene where his wife’s father is complaining about how awful the boys are turning out and his wife, played by Leslie Bibb, fires back, “if we wanted sissies, we’d a’ named ‘em Dr. Quinn an’ Medicine Woman.”)
In short, he begins as the sort of man who could only count to #1.
Of course, the plot is incidental in this movie. Like Anchorman, it’s really just an excuse for Ferrell, director Adam McKay, and their latest company to string several written and improvised jokes along (one of the best, surprisingly, comes from Michael Clarke Duncan, and is played as an outtake over the credits), like a NASCAR themed episode of Saturday Night Live. As with SNL, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Happily, unlike SNL, most of it does. And since the joy in watching Talledega Nights is in watching those jokes unfold, I won’t spoil any more of them for you. I will, however, say in advance that like Anchorman, many of the jokes in the trailer aren’t in the movie (happily, my favourite, “you gotta feel the road,” is), and I will commend Farrell and co. for not constantly thinking below the waist in their humour (the only major one, with Molly Shannon getting off on the rumblings at the track, was quite a hit with the women in the audience).
I will also spend one more paragraph talking about the plot. It’s terrible. Well, it’s not terrible so much as it doesn’t make any internal sense. Watching this movie, I could picture Ferrell and McKay (credited as the screenwriters, though it’s obvious much of it was improvised) attacking the characters with large mallets: “stop being original, you idiots! Obey your conventions!” Unlike Anchorman, Ricky’s “story” takes centre stage more often than you’d think, and notice I said he “begins” as the sort of man who could only count to #1. Through a contrivance which I won’t reveal but thought was a dream sequence until the movie kept going, he loses faith in himself, moves in with his mother (Jane Lynch, Steve Carrell’s horny manager in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and has to be re-trained by his father (hence the “you gotta feel the road” sequence). There are double crosses, inspiring speeches, a teeth-gnashing villain (a gay Frenchman played by Sacha Baron Cohen, AKA Ali G), and a climatic showdown, but the shifting allegiances and motivations of the characters are unbelievable. On some level, of course, Ferrell and co. are poking fun at all the hoary old genre conventions; on the other hand, wouldn’t it have been nice if these broad (and often original) characters had stayed true to themselves, instead of giving into their stereotypes? (The possible exception is Gary Coleman, terrific and almost unrecognizable as Ricky’s father.) Staying true to the offbeat characters still would have made for a relatively solid, conventional (in a satiric way), and entertaining movie. Through more than half the film I could feel the plot’s wheels grinding. The humour isn’t always distracting enough.
Ultimately, though, Talladega Nights is a successful Will Ferrell comedy. You know if you’re willing to put up with this kind of weirdness, and whether or not the guy makes you laugh. If he doesn’t, you’ve already made the decision to avoid this movie. If he does, you’ll have a good time.