Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was reportedly shopped around to studios with a six-word pitch: "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver." That sums up the entire takeaway of the film. It's Will Ferrell being Will Ferrell. With fast cars.
Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) is a simple and self-glorifying NASCAR star who's always had a need for speed. With an inherited life motto from his dad of "If you ain't first, you're last," Ricky believes winning is everything. And winners, he reasons, can do whatever they want and have whatever they want. But soon, his reign as the hedonistic king of NASCAR is threatened by a new challenger—the homosexual French driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen).
So, the important question: Is it funny? Oh yes. While not as funny as Anchorman (also written by Ferrell and director Adam McKay), Ferrell's over-the-top, no-holds-barred wackiness carries the movie. He again falls back on his trademark Doofus Everyman role, the cartoonish and innocently aloof exaggeration of a real person set in a world of absurdity. The script has some clever moments, like lampooning sports films' knack for long, slow-motion action sequences and Karate Kid-like training sequences. But it's very likely that most of the film's biggest laughs weren't ever written in the script, but came out of on-camera improv between a cast that obviously had a blast filming.
However, the laughs don't add up to much. They don't stick with you, because there's no meaning behind them. Instead, the movie is just 105 minutes of bawdy absurdity for absurdity's sake. While Ferrell's Doofus Everyman bit is funny, it's a joke that gets old. As Anchorman's Ron Burgundy, Ferrell found ways to keep the character fresh. And perhaps part of the credit is owed to that film's effective use of great side characters to supplement Ferrell. But here, he pretty much solely carries all the humor. Most of the side characters' bits fall embarrassingly flat. Of the supporting cast, only Ricky's mom (Jane Lynch) and his two sons are memorable—and that's because they are the only characters with a linear, sensical plot. Everyone else is like a comedy prop: used for a certain joke and then moved out of the film. What a character will say or believe in one scene seems to have nothing to do with what the same character does or believes later on.
The underlying issue is that Talladega Nights has no real message, theme, or story. It is hard to tell exactly what the film is trying to say or project through its comedy and satire. It always seems like the movie is about to punch home a satirical point about NASCAR or clearly lampoon something, but then that theme fades away and another gag pops up. The story themes are hard to figure out as well. In the end, a character teaches Ricky a lesson about life and racing, but it comes out of nowhere and lasts little more than a few lines. It feels like the film is saying, "Okay, this is when we need to end this thing somehow." Then, we're assured that Ricky Bobby is changed and all is well. The only real satisfying story arc is that of Ricky's mom and her two grandsons. Never disciplined by their parents, the boys are evil, disrespectful little brats until Grandma enforces "Granny Law." With just a little force and discipline, Granny shows the boys that you can't just do or say whatever you feel like—you must exercise manners and responsibility.
But other than that, it's hard to discern what the movie is saying or projecting. And then you realize that is because the film isn't trying to say or project anything. It is just a parade of somewhat related gags. Really, the film plays like an episode of Saturday Night Live, with the same character tying together various sketches poking fun at Southerners, psychosomatic diseases, NASCAR fans, people who pray, product placement, the French, and sports movies.
By having these things lampooned with little to no thematic discussion and resolution, the movie pretty much relishes in moral ambiguity (a trait winked at by an after-the-credits scene). There are long comedic discussions about prayer and how differently people view Jesus (some think of a baby in a manger, others think of a gentle peacemaker, etc.). There are many gay jokes and homophobic remarks. There are gags about the intelligence and culture of NASCAR fans. But there's ambiguity to all these messages. Some Christians will be very offended by the irreverent way Christ is discussed. Others will think that there's a satiric point about how we create God in the image we want. Some will feel the film is offensively attacking homosexuals. Others may think it's critiquing the way some people unfairly treat homosexuals. But it's clear that Talledega Nights isn't concerned with those conversations. Instead, it just wants to chuckle about seeing grown men hold hands and thinking about Jesus as a ninja.
If only somebody would institute Granny Law on the current slew of Doofus Everyman films to show that you can't just do or say whatever you want because you think it's funny. You have to grow up someday.Discussion starters
- Ricky Bobby says, "You gotta win to be loved." How do you see this statement reflected in his actions and motivations? What lessons do you think he learned in the end
- Why do you think Walker and Texas Ranger acted the way they did? What were they looking for and how did Granny provide it
- What do you think of the films discussions about praying to "baby Jesus"? Were you offended? Why or why not? How do you view Jesus? How do you think most people view Christ? How are those visions of him perpetuated or created
- What do you think the film was saying about homosexuals? Was the way it portrayed them offensive? Why or why not? How about Southern culture and NASCAR fans? What do you think the film is saying about them?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Rated PG-13, the film should be viewed as being very close to an R. This isn't for kids. Just about every swear word in the book is used, in addition to the use of the middle finger. There are many sexual innuendos, implied sexual acts, crude jokes, an exaggerated orgasm, and a prolonged kiss between two men. A character stabs himself with a knife, and another man snaps a character's arm (both acts are played for laughs). There are several drug references as well. There is a great deal of offensive comedy that's off-color and sophomoric.
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Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/10/06
He first made a splash on television playing a cheerleader. Now, audiences are cheering for him.
Like Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and Mike Myers before him, Will Ferrell is following in the footsteps of the most successful Saturday Night Live alumni, releasing box-office-topping comedies bound to become lasting favorites. Films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and his latest—Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby—mix clever sketch-comedy and a generous helping of the absurd, provoking us to laugh at a wide variety of egoists, braggarts, bigots, and fools who are oblivious to their own lunacy. Just as Anchorman traced the fall and rise of a television newsman in the 1970s, Talladega Nights, made with the help of NASCAR, chronicles the fall and rise of a racing champion.
And yet, while Ferrell sends many away holding their sides in laughter, he's causing others—including some Christian film critics—to hold their heads in dismay instead. (One went so far as to call it one of the most "blasphemous, politically correct major movies ever released by a major Hollywood studio.")
Stephen McGarvey (Crosswalk) writes, "Rather than being mean-spirited Talladega is ultimately kind to its simpleminded characters, and all demographics represented (except for perhaps the French). Unfortunately, the movie—like most of Will Ferrell's films—has decided that you can't be funny without also being over-the-top vulgar. It's too bad since Talladega Nights could have been one of this year's funniest."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "only fitfully amusing . … Ferrell is a gifted physical comedian, but his goofily entertaining performance feels like a pastiche of many of his past roles. There's not much under the hood when it comes to story, and the script by Ferrell and longtime collaborator Adam McKay (who also directs) hits plenty of speed bumps in the form of juvenile jokes by turns vulgar, irreverent, or just unfunny."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "Sure, [Ferrell's] absurdist streak can be pretty funny, but based on his previous collaboration with director Adam McKay on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, I should have known that anything coming from their sophomoric minds would be long on crude, juvenile sexual humor and gross-out gags. And, true enough, we get more of the same. Lots more of the same."
Most mainstream critics seem to be enjoying Ferrell's high-speed, high-spirited comedy.