Help me God! Help me Jewish god! Help me Allah! Help me Tom Cruise! –Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell)
“America is all about speed,” asserts an epigraph at the start of Talladega Nights: The Story of Ricky Bobby. “Hot, nasty-ass speed.” Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, this little bit of truth refers obliquely to another, related aspect of U.S. culture, commercialism. The movie makes this point emphatically. As much as Ricky Bobby’s racing career is about going fast, it’s even more cogently about products, lots of ’em. Wonder Bread, Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola, Domino’s pizza, KFC, Visa, Fig Newtons, Taco Bell, Hardees, Perrier, Sony Vaio, Power-Ade, Huffy bikes, Coors, Lucky Charms, Applebees, Budweiser, Sprint, Kodak, Goodyear, QVC, Sunoco, Old Spice, McDonald’s: they all show up here, emphasizing the very corporate Americanness of NASCAR.
Ricky himself begins the film as a child: his father Reese (Gary Cole) is a deeply cynical, inveterate rascal of a racecar driver, his mother Lucy (Jane Lynch) saintly and soft-spoken. Believing his father’s love to be conditioned on his own ability to “go fast, the boy begins driving when he can barely see over the dashboard, stealing his mom’s station wagon to joyride. “It’s the fastest who gets paid and it’s the fastest who gets laid,” Reese declares. And the boy believes it.
Ricky first appears in his adult form (Will Ferrell) working in a NASCAR pit crew under the guidance of the eternally patient Lucius (Michael Clarke Duncan); when he gets his big chance to drive, Ricky does indeed go very fast, revealing a talent that impresses team owner (Greg Germann) and earns him the winner’s spot. With his best friend and teammate Cal Naughton (John C. Reilly), Ricky develops a slingshot maneuver they like to call (again and again), “shake ‘n’ bake” (“It rhymes and they’re both verbs,” burbles Cal). Ricky always wins, Cal supports him (“I don’t want to win,” he says, abjectly. “It’s painful, and I love you”). As the film’s moral lesson portion has it, winning becomes Ricky’s obsession, assuming as he does that “you get love” when you do it. As he wins — and makes millions on endorsements contracts — he becomes unbearable.
Ricky marries a gold-digging busty blond, Carley (Leslie Bibb), with whom he has a couple of sons (named Walker and Texas Ranger, a nice touch) who are even more obnoxious than he is, disrespecting their elders and exulting in destructive “anarchy” (“I don’t even know what it means,” Texas Ranger chirps, “But I love it!”). They seem happy in their mansion and on tv, until Ricky meets the man destined to teach him a lesson, sort of.
That would be Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Frenchman who announces his presence at Ricky’s favorite bar by selecting a jazz track on the juke box (“We keep it on there for profiling purposes,” says the proprietor. “We also have the Pet Shop Boys and Seal on it”). Thus marked as gay as well as French, the Formula One driver Jean initiates a contest between national identities. When Ricky announces that the U.S. has provided the world with “George Bush, Cheerios and the Thigh Master,” he counters with a list of French inventions: “democracy, existentialism, and the mŽnage a trois.” While the assembled men grumble that these are indeed fine contributions to humanity, when Jean goes so far as to break Ricky’s arm because he won’t state that he “loves crepes” “The room’s started to spin real fast,” complains Ricky, “‘Cause of gayness”), the contest is on. Again, sort of.
Jean switches to NASCAR, bringing along his husband (Andy Richter), a crew chief who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1993, and his copy of L’etranger, to underline his gayness and Frenchiness, and having soirees with Mos Def and Elvis Costello to show… I don’t know, his jazziness and his celebrity. At the same time, Ricky plunges into self-doubting despair following a terrible car-flipping wreck. His racing career screeched to a halt, Ricky loses his house, his contracts, and his wife — to Cal, who steps in as a wingman probably shouldn’t. Tragedy reunites the original rednecky family, as Lucy retrains the children to be god-fearing and Reese convinces Ricky that he does indeed “have hair on his peaches.”
While Talladega Nights is, like other Will Ferrell projects, less a movie than a series of skits that call for him (like Ben Stiller or Steve Carell) to act all crazy. There’s clearly a market for such shenanigans, no matter the setting (the world of NASCAR serves the same function as would that of ice skating or bookstore clerking or anchormanning) or the teammates. For, much as Reilly is a pip here, and Cohen something of a revelation, really, they’re immaterial to the formula, to repeat, Ferrell acts all crazy.
What this film does well — and/or perversely, which means about the same thing in this context — is to target everyone. From flag-waving redneck to French intellectual, from ornery horndog to odious Halliburton exec and back again, Talladega Nights takes inaccurate aim at all stereotypes, remaking them as commercial products. “Someone didn’t love you enough when you were little, did they?” asks one of Reese’s reformed grandsons. “Good call,” comes the surly, wholly unrepentant retort. It’s a toss-away exchange, and it illustrates the film’s joke-making concept perfectly. No excuses, no escape.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby — Theatrical Trailer