' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Talladega Nights

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Some Drivel On...Talladega Nights

In 2006, fresh off his soccer movie, and in advance of his figure skating and basketball movies, Will Ferrell made his NASCAR movie, the loquaciously titled “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, directed and co-written by his frequent cohort Adam McKay. And in such close proximity to Ferrell’s other athletic-endeavored efforts, it was easy, and remains so, to lump “Ricky Bobby” in with their inconsistent bits of low-pressure comedy. And while it is fair to say that “Ricky Bobby”, like the others, often feels, in moments, indulgent, like a scene of saying grace that is as protracted as it is amusing, it would be wrong to say that “Ricky Bobby” is low-pressure. It has ideas on its mind, yes it does, and communicates them with a comical force.


“Ricky Bobby” lashes its culture commentary to the structure of a run-of-mill athletic biopic, which, despite its lapses, for better and for worse into riffing comedy, it inhabits all the way through, “not,” as Jim Emerson wrote, simply “stand(ing) outside and making references to other movies.” Instead, Emerson notes that McKay and Ferrell’s movie “inhabits the biopic formula all the way through -- even down to the slightly draggy stretch in the second act, before the big comeback.” That biopic takes root in an early scene when Ricky Bobby learns his life’s mantra from his father, Reece Bobby (played by Gary Cole with an impressive droll hilarity) – “If you’re not first, your last.” It’s a sentiment that has, over time, become so relevant to reality Kevin Durant unironically said it. But Ricky Bobby’s inevitable journey is learning that this mantra is not true, taking the top perch as a narcissistic NASCAR top dog, falling from the perch when he’s challenged by a driver from a different world, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), other customs invading his own, losing his wife and his kids, bottoming out, and then rising back up.

As vain as Ricky Bobby might initially be, Ferrell is not, allowing ample room for his skilled co-stars to maneuver. In another movie Amy Adams’s emergent love interest would be there simply to support the hero with googly eyes rather than comedic lines, but Adams gets great lines and sells them gusto, and then adds an almost unbridled ecstasy on top of the gusto. Adams, in fact, is afforded the end-of-second-act speech in which she presents the Hero’s Elixir in the form of a motivational speech. “’Me’ is you because it’s just you out there. We don’t have any corporate sponsors. We don’t have any fancy team owners. We have you and this car.” America, as complicated and paradoxical a country as there is, often touts an individualist ethos even as the necessity of being part of a team, or the importance of family, is routinely stressed, seemingly in contradiction of the first idea. But “Talladega Nights” effortlessly embodies the idea that in messed-up ol’ America both are true. Ricky Bobby eradicates his narcissism even as he drives alone.


That journey to inner peace, meanwhile, is sandwiched within a comical commentary on cultural sensitivity, which is, by far, the most memorable through line of “Talladega Nights”. NASCAR is nothing if not a subculture. America, this vast nation, is rife with subcultures, and those subcultures are often born of regionalism, and NASCAR is no different. The supposed invader of this regionalistic subculture then becomes Jean Girard, introduced at The Pit Stop, the bar which so many NASCAR drivers frequent, and Girard announces his presence by playing jazz on the jukebox. When the music is cut off, Girard asks why it’s on the jukebox in the first place, leading the bartender to gruffly remark “We keep it on there for profiling purposes.” It's funny, yes, but also revealing, indicative not just of NASCAR but so much of the U.S.A where outsiders are immediately suspect and regulations are put in place to keep an eye out for them.

Jean Girard’s ensuing confrontation of Ricky Bobby leads to one of the most spectacular sequences of the last movie decade, in which he demands Ricky Bobby say “I like crepes.” Ricky Bobby will not. “These colors don't run.” Even when it is explained to him what crepes are, and even when he admits that he actually likes them, and when his best friend says he actually had crepes that very morning, Ricky Bobby still will not say it, the sort of ridiculous American defiance that is so currently in vogue. This prompts Girard to injure him, not fatally but to the extent that Ricky Bobby is forced off the track, ceding his #1 spot to the scurrilous Frenchman.

If it is American hubris that does Ricky Bobby in then it is a good dose of humility that prompts his rebirth, eventually allowing him to find acceptance of this crepe-loving Other, emblemized in the moment at the end when he refuses to shake Girard’s hand yet openly kisses him anyway. “You taste,” says Girard, “of America.” It is one of my favorite lines of the new cinematic century. It is the best evidence I have seen yet that maybe, one day, we really can all get along. {Laughs.}

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