Sing along to The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

by Glen Baity

NASCAR has had a big summer at the box office. Cars raced to the winner’s circle in June, and this past Friday the long-anticipated (at least by me) Talladega Nights followed in its tire tracks.

And both of them, I’m glad to say, were approximately 10 million times better than Days of Thunder.

Hilariously subtitled The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the film comes from the creative team behind 2004’s Anchorman and is produced by Judd Apatow, director of last year’s best comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Like both of those films, Talladega frequently veers off into the absurd, spinning its laughs out of ridiculously funny, well-timed digressions and occasionally mind-blowing turns of phrase.

When the audience joins the ballad, Ricky Bobby is but a soft-spoken member of the Laughing Clown Malt Liquor pit crew. Circumstance requires him to take over for his team’s driver, where his natural gifts behind the wheel are revealed to the world.

Soon enough he becomes a self-described “big, hairy American winning machine,” topping pole after pole, dodging multi-car pile-ups, autographing babies and driving the women wild. But things quickly change with the stateside arrival of French Formula One champion Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, AKA Ali G., AKA Borat, AKA Bruno, all from HBO’s unmissable “Da Ali G Show”), who turns the world of stock car racing upside down in his pursuit of Ricky Bobby’s crown.

Talladega, while certainly its own film, is essentially Anchorman on wheels, as both films follow the same narrative thread: Ricky Bobby rises to stardom, thrives at the top of his game, is beaten and disgraced but manages to claw his way back to the top. The film uses Anchorman’s hook, wherein an unfamiliar, slightly hostile element (a female journalist there, a Frenchman here) is introduced into the safe bubble of the loveably boorish main character, bringing with it unmitigated chaos.

But what can I say? The formula just works. This second collaboration between director/writer Adam McKay and co-writer/star Ferrell again brings the laughs in bulk. I like how they do it, too: Their films don’t rest on one character, though the titles always seem to indicate that they do. Instead they pepper the background with a unique, terrific supporting cast. Talladega continues in this vein, with the always-fantastic John C Reilly in his first pure slapstick role as Ricky Bobby’s lifelong friend; Gary Cole (of Office Space infamy) as the absentee elder of the Bobby clan; and Cohen in a great, over-the-top turn as the anti-Ricky.

Ferrell clocks in another classic performance, ensuring that every third movie quote employed in a conversation by anyone, anywhere will be one of his. As usual, however, it’s not so much the lines themselves (which are funny on their own merit) but in his one-of-a-kind delivery. I know at least a few people who absolutely loathe Ferrell’s wide-eyed, stupefied brand of humor, and Talladega Nights will be anathema to that sad population. Anyone else who has followed his career, from the cowbell to the kegger, will find in this film one of his most memorable roles.

I’m usually turned off by product placement in films, but if anyone out there has any idea how to do a film about NASCAR without including all its corporate sponsorships, I’d be happy to hear it. One of the best moves this film makes is in how it addresses that phenomenon, not by scaling it back and hoping its audience won’t notice, but by pushing it to the point of parody. Ricky Bobby, bound by his contracts, plugs Powerade in his before-meal prayers. His sons are named after a television show (though one gets the feeling that this doesn’t stem from a legal imperative). He hocks alcohol, funeral parlors and Wonder Bread with the zeal of a born salesman, and trust me, it’s all deliriously funny.

Even as a Southerner by birth, I guess I never really ‘got’ racing in general and NASCAR in particular, but a large part of me takes a certain pride in the sport’s invasion of the mainstream these past few years. Also, it might be coded in my DNA, or it might just be the film’s direction, but the race scenes are excellent, compelling even. I doubt my love of this movie will turn me into an avid race fan – Carolina native or not, I just don’t think it’s in the cards – but if anything could do it, it would undoubtedly be Talladega Nights.

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