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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

While I was sitting in the dark at the Essex Cinemas watching Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby I found myself wondering if there were people in the South who were going to think this was a documentary and not a spoof on the “poor white trash” mentality of those folks who live and breathe for their NASCAR rallies, who consider eating at Shoney’s something so special you reserve that treat for the holidays, and who believe that Dale Earnhardt truly died for their sins. You think I’m kidding, but I’ve seen these people. Someone recently sent me a picture of a morbidly obese man without his shirt on who was so hairy he looked like he was wearing an angora sweater. He was in the stands at a NASCAR race and had shaved a huge number “3” into the fur on his back as a tribute to his fallen “hero.” I’m not sure how these cultists consider someone who drives around in circles and gets splattered against a wall a “hero” but ~ hey! ~ to each their own. Anyway, I hope that if they see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby they don’t get the joke because they’d probably be really p.o.’ed and if they could get their ’76 Corvettes started they just might drive north and beat us all with half-eaten bags of pork-rinds and Cheetos. For the rest of us, who do get the joke, however, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is chock full of a lot of laughs at the expense of some very simple-minded people.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby follows the rise, fall and rebirth of the career of ~ who else? ~ Ricky Bobby, played with great relish by Will Ferrell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). Ferrell is perfectly cast as the nitwit whose only goal since childhood has been to “drive real fast” and he achieves that goal in record time, becoming the almost instantaneous champion of NASCAR and the darling of the press and the fans. Despite his dirt-poor background, Ricky Bobby embraces his newfound fame and cherishes the trophy wife that appears suddenly on his arm without explanation as the movie plows rapidly through the years leading to where it really wants the story to begin, which is with his fall from grace after a nearly fatal accident on the track.

The set-up of Ricky Bobby’s good fortune is not nearly as complicated as what happens when he is challenged with some serious life changing dramas, although it does offer many laughs, most
coming from the improvised dialogue between Ferrell and John C. Reilly (A Prairie Home Companion) as his best friend and fellow driver, Cal Naughton, Jr. A favorite scene during Ricky Bobby’s “golden years” includes these two providing all kinds of down-home silliness at the supper table as Cal interrupts Ricky’s long-extended grace before dinner with an impromptu discussion on what Jesus looks like and whether it is appropriate to pray to the adult Jesus (“or ‘Hay-Sooz’ as our friends to the south call You”) or to the “Christmas baby Jesus”, which Ricky prefers, even though his wife Carley (Leslie Bibb of tv’s “Crossing Jordan”) insists that baby Jesus doesn’t have his “superpowers yet and can’t be of any help.” Cal, meanwhile, imagines Jesus to look like either a “mean badger” or “a homeless person because He is in disguise.” It’s these types of digressions from the simple story that keep the plotline from
seeming to stall or prevent us from thinking too long about the fact that in many ways Ricky Bobby’s life is rather sad.

Despite having lots of money and fame, he is driven (Ha! Get it?) by an almost obsessive need to reconnect with his father, Reese (Gary Cole; tv’s “The West Wing). In the first part of the film we see Reese at Ricky’s birth and again when the boy is around ten. He pops up only occasionally in Ricky’s life and always with the same message: “If you’re not number one, you’re last.” It is this mantra that pushed Ricky to his success, and it is the one thing he wants to show his father when they meet up again once Ricky has achieved his NASCAR notoriety. Unfortunately, Reese has
found that number one in his life is his best friend Jack Daniels.

Threatening Ricky’s place in history is French Formula 1 driver Jean Girard (played ever so tongue-in-cheek by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as the title character from tv’s "Da Ali G Show"). Jean arrives from France with his husband, Gregory (Andy Richter; Elf), to rattle the NASCAR world by becoming its first gay, French champion. Full of confidence, Girard even sips tea, enjoys a tasty snack and listens to classical music as he drives his Perrier-sponsored racer. His smugness is by far his most ~ and least ~ charming feature and what separates him from the rest of the NASCAR regulars. Where Girard
would be the type to pose for a PETA ad with Bambi, Cal, for instance, would take his wife deer hunting on their honeymoon. Such are the cultural differences that make for much of the film’s humor.

The supporting, or rather, non-supporting, cast includes two of the foulest-mouthed children on film since Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Newcomers Houston Tumlin plays Walker and Grayson Russell is Texas Ranger, Ricky’s two sons. These kids may never have acted before but they are naturals in front of the camera and their shocking dialogue is just so inappropriate that it evokes laughter no matter how hard you may try to suppress it. Of course, in real life, if either one uttered even one of the epithets they use in the film a parent would no doubt treat the boy to the luxury of sitting on a pillow for at least a week after a good old-fashioned spanking. Here, Ricky’s hillbilly mentality takes pride in the boys’ “saying what they mean.” Fortunately, Ricky’s mother, Lucy (Jane Lynch; The 40 Year Old Virgin), is around to enforce “Granny’s Law”, which must be the magic that has kept the South at least somewhat civilized over the past few centuries. By the movie’s end she has these two literally
turned into church choirboys! It truly is a miracle!

Overall, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a whole lot of wheels spinning on and off the track. The race scenes are well-filmed and exciting for the fans, though mercifully short for those who aren’t particularly NASCAR-inclined, and the set-up to a final face-to-face between Ricky and Jean is seamless, leading to an absurd and unexpected payoff that will leave some viewers squirming while others will laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of the moment.

I am sure those who faithfully send their money to Pat Robertson, have had their hairdos ruined by coming in contact with a ceiling fan, and consider that an “Extreme Makeover” for their home involves taking the wheels off and putting it on cinder blocks will look at Talladega Nights: The
Ballad of Ricky Bobby as a great drama that chronicles the life of a racetrack rebel, albeit a fictional one. Heck, there may even be those who think Ricky Bobby is real. After all, people swear Elvis is still walking around. For the majority though, at least on this side of Red(neck) state divide, we may find Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby a bit mean-spirited at times but it never bristles or tries to be downright cruel. The laughs are genuine because they ring true.

So clean the empty beer bottles out your pick-up, peel the “I ‘heart’ Jeff Gordon” sticker off the back bumper, and head on down to the
Essex Cinemas for some good old home-grown laughs. They’re thicker’n grits and tastier than Aunt Betty Lou’s Peach Cobbler and you can take that to the bank and cash it.

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