Talladega Nights:
The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

directed by Adam McKay
(Columbia TriStar, 2006)

Over the past three years, Will Ferrell has played an anchorman (in Anchorman) a dancing Nazi playwright (The Producers) and a 6-foot-tall Elf in a film so bad it not only failed to make my list of films you must see between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but leads my list of flicks that can single-handedly ruin your whole holiday season.

So who would have imagined he'd now be playing a rising NASCAR star locked in a life-or-death driving duel with a jazz-loving gay French Formula 1 phenom? Why, Ferrell, of course.

In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ferrell shares writing credits with director Adam McKay, and talk about credit where credit is due.

Talladega Nights quickly swarms the NASCAR field, lampooning everything in sight and a few things non-NASCAR fans probably wouldn't have noticed. First, of course, come the easy targets: the sponsorships, the endorsements, the buzzwords, the in-your-face rivalries between the good guys and the bad boys of the track.

But Ferrell and McKay have gone these goodies one better by tying their track tale to two of the key "moral values" issues of the day: faith and gay rights.

Bobby, we learn, was conceived in the restroom of a Rustler's Steakhouse, born in the back seat of a souped-up Chevy and suffered untold indignities as the son of deadbeat dad Reese Bobby (Gary Cole), a semipro race car driver and amateur tattoo artist. And rarely does Ricky Bobby sit down to a meal or a life crisis without uttering a prayer to the Baby Jesus -- he explains somewhat at length in his first "grace" that he prefers praying to the Baby Jesus as opposed to the Grownup Jesus -- although in his greatest moment of crisis, when he catches fire in a race wreck, he expands his supplications to the Jewish God, Allah, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey (pronounced Win-e-frey) for good measure.

The number of variations on this theme concocted by Ferrell and McKay is impressive. It's definitely something they've thought about. But even more impressive is how they handle the gay jokes, almost all of which are targeted at Ricky Bobby's track rival, Jean Girard, played by Sacha Baron Cohen -- before he found fame as the world's most sued superstar.

Girard, who races while downing a demitasse or reading Camus' The Stranger (oddly enough, the same book President Bush allegedly read on his summer vacation), seems forever in a hurry to hold Bobby's hand or kiss him on the lips. But the best gay gags are really double-edged -- they occur when the straight characters try their hardest not to be offensive, thereby doubling the offense. It's a nice trick if you can pull it off, and more often than not Ferrell and McKay do.

Ferrell also has the advantage of being surrounded by a more-than-competent cast, led by John C. Reilly as his best bud from grade school, Cal Naughton Jr.

It's Cal who pushes Bobby to rise from pit man to driver when the team needs a last-minute replacement; it's Cal who, as the team's second driver, slingshots Bobby past the competition; and it's Cal, who, after the crash lands Bobby in the hospital, walks off with Bobby's wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), his sons, Walker and Texas Ranger (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell) and his house and cars, but still wants to be friends (in fact, he wants Bobby to be the best man at his and Carley's wedding).

It's also Cal who has some of the film's best dialogue, especially when a psychiatrist tells him Bobby's insistence he can't walk is all in his head.

"So when you say 'psychosomatic,' you mean he could start a fire with his thoughts?" Cal asks.

Add to this some great footage of race cars flying around the tracks and through the air, and some terrific music -- Lynyrd Skynyrd is on the soundtrack, of course, as is Waylon Jennings, but you also get a couple of great tunes, "Hard-Core Troubador" and "Valentine's Day," by Steve Earle -- and you have the makings of a real fun flick.

Like many of the movies made by Saturday Night Live stars, Talladega Nights is at heart a series of hilarious vignettes. Unlike many of those films, though, this one is masterfully strung together. It will have you laughing long after you've turned off the credits -- which themselves contain quite a few laughs -- and even after you've returned the film.

Just a word of caution, though. There are two versions of Talladega Nights: One runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references and brief comic violence. The other is unrated and runs 122 minutes. Guess which direction those other 14 minutes lean toward.

by Miles O'Dometer
20 January 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.