Since Netflix and other streaming services seem intent on tossing Will Ferrell titles at me, why not review them? I have recently done most of his legendary roles, like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Step Brothers(2008). So, why not review Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)? Is it another example of your run-of-the-mill, early 2000s, Judd Apatow innuendo fest that is supposed to make you laugh? I guess people were chuckling back when they premiered in theaters. As I chronicled with my discussion of Anchorman and Step Brothers, the luster has worn off over the years. While Talladega Nights has also lost some of its laughs, I still found the parts that I thought were funny previously to have a bit of merit now. In short, it is still a decent film.
Given how most Apatow productions are presented, it is probably not surprising that the Southern stereotypes are present from the get-go in Talladega Nights. Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is born in the back seat of a muscle car driven by his slightly intoxicated, vaguely redneck, racing enthusiast father Reese (Gary Cole). He leaves his new family shortly thereafter, but shows up once more while Ricky is in junior high in order to get thrown out for telling middle schoolers a bunch of inappropriate things on bring your parent to school day. Reese’s parting advice to his son before dropping out of Ricky’s life again for another decade plus is to go fast, and if you are not first, you are last. This, rather obviously, leads to Ricky, with his best friend from childhood, Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), to get into the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). At first, they are simple pit crew members. But when their driver decides that some fast food is more important than driving, Ricky takes the wheel and finishes the race with an impressive placing. His performance launches his racing career, and he soon has Cal as his teammate. Because Cal worships Ricky, Cal always lets Ricky finish first. What upsets the dynamic is the arrival of French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). After dominating the circuit in Europe, Jean has come to the United States to take down Ricky. In their first race, Ricky has a terrible accident. He is actually unscathed from it, but he tells himself it is much worse. It also makes him hesitant to get back to driving. From there, he is kicked off his team, Cal quickly moves in on Ricky’s wife Carley (Leslie Bibb), and Ricky is forced to slink home to his mother Lucy (Jane Lynch) along with his delinquent sons Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell). Seeing how out of sorts he is, Lucy enlists Reese’s help in order to get Ricky back to what he does best: driving fast. Reese’s help involves having Ricky operate a moving vehicle blind folded (which ends disastrously), driving with a live cougar in the car, and outrunning the police when they believe he has drugs in his car. This last turns out to be a bag of cereal. In any case, it appears to be what he needed to return to the NASCAR circuit. With a little help from his former assistant and new girlfriend Susan (Amy Adams), he is able to get a new car and his old pit crew reassembled. When he shows up for the event at the eponymous track, Ricky also confronts Cal. In doing so, Ricky apologizes for taking advantage of Cal. Though confused, this is enough for Cal to help Ricky to take on Jean during the race, even though it results in the wreck of the rest of the field. Eventually, both Ricky and Jean crash too, but then they get out of their vehicles and run to the finish line. Ricky beats the Frenchman literally by a finger, a turn of events that somehow frees Jean from his devotion to racing. And because none of that counted in the actual race, with Cal in front when the pile up took place, he is made the winner. All is seemingly right in the world.
How does one take any serious message from Talladega Nights? Even though there were several irreverent jokes made about Jesus, I at least appreciate the fact that they take the time to pray before meals. It is also good that Lucy is able to turn Walker and Texas Ranger into literal choir boys instead of foul mouthed, spoiled brats. Still, like most parts of the film, this is meant to be a send up of Southern culture in general, and NASCAR fans in particular. I would also mention how there is an actual arc to Ricky’s character, going from somebody who only looked out for himself to seeing how his selfishness hurt those around him, especially Cal. Though Ricky spends a great deal of time angry with Cal for betraying their friendship, he does come to the realization that he bears some of the blame for what happened. One thing I have learned from my Christian peers, Faith journey, time studying to become a spiritual director, and therapy in general, is that we are responsible for our own feelings. How others receive what we say or do to them is out of our hands. Of course, that is not carte blanche to behave however we wish. There is the Golden Rule, after all. For Ricky, when he was racing only for himself and the sponsorships, it created a cadre of people around him that were not going to be there for him when times were difficult. Case in point: Carley. It took the love of his mother and the (albeit absurd) training of his father to teach him that other people mattered. This is cemented when at the end, when Cal assumes they were going to go back to their patented “shake and bake” maneuver that always allowed Ricky to win, Ricky says no and tells him to continue being his own driver. Doing so approaches the kind of love that God has for us, the kind that seeks not only the best for ourselves, but for those around us. In the end, it becomes Ricky’s new motivation for racing.
That is way more serious than Talladega Nights is meant to be taken. It is, after all, a comedy, and not some high-minded character study. Also, while it is the funniest of the three Will Ferrell films I have re-watched lately, I could do without the kissing scene between Ricky and Jean near the end. It is not necessarily offensive. Given the context, it is rather poking fun at homosexuals and NASCAR fans that the film assumes would be against such acts. As such, it is one of a few brief moments of dated material in an otherwise surprisingly solid film.