Saturday 23 December 2017

Movie Review: Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006)

A sports satire, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby skewers the world of NASCAR racing with a rusted tie rod.

Ricky Bobby is born in the backseat of a car to semi-professional racer and heavy pot user Reece Bobby (Gary Cole), a mostly absentee father, and his wife Lucy (Jane Lynch). Ricky grows up idolizing his Dad, and adopts Reece's throwaway line "if you ain't first, you're last" as his life's mantra. A grown up Ricky (Will Ferrell) finds work as a NASCAR pit crew member on the circuit's worst team owned by Larry Dennit Sr. (Pat Hingle) and his son Jr. (Greg Germann). When the Dennit driver goes AWOL, Ricky jumps into the car and achieves third place.

Ricky quickly establishes himself as the best driver in the field and starts accumulating wins and championships. He forms a formidable "Shake 'n Bake" partnership with his teammate and childhood friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), although Ricky never lets Cal win. Ricky gains immense wealth, a trophy wife in Carley (Leslie Bibb), and two bratty young boys. But when ex-Formula One champion and openly gay Frenchman Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) invades NASCAR, Ricky's life starts to fall apart.

The world of racing where the cars only ever turn left in big circles may be an easy target, but director Adam McKay, who co-wrote the film with Ferrell, bites into it with venom. Talladega Nights features none-too bright drivers married to buxom gold-digging beauties doing battle for dimwitted owners married to perpetually tipsy wives in a modern version of chariot racing dominated by sponsors. While the laughs are plenty and the characters goofy if not stupid, McKay and Ferrell also handle the subject with enough affection to avoid outright meanness.

McKay wisely stays away from too many actual racing scenes, the sport a primarily boring exercise in going round and round until someone crashes. When Talladega Nights does go to the track, it is to generate over-exaggerated crashes and big laughs, including Ricky's infamous mental meltdown prompting a stripdown to his undies. It's a wild enough sequence that deserves the encore that duly arrives, as the film's second half focuses on Ricky's long road to redemption.

Off the track the film circles back to Ricky's family, and to McKay's credit the story gets better when dad Reece and mom Lucy re-enter Ricky's life. What the young boy lacked in proper upbringing he will receive from his parents through the pixelated lens of an already warped adulthood, and the film motors its way to a satisfying conclusion where men stumble upon their improved selves.

Will Ferrell has rarely been better in a straight comedy, with the strong material allowing him to ride the story without appearing to try too hard. The characters of Cal Naughton Jr and Jean Girard are the catalysts who steer events in Ricky's life, and both John C. Reilly and Sacha Baron Cohen are perfect in providing support. Reilly ensures that Naughton is the perfect side-idiot, while Baron Cohen somehow keeps a straight face playing the arrogant Frenchman sipping macchiatos inside the racing car while waiting for someone - anyone - to challenge him at the front.

The three lead actors engage in plenty of sharp improvisation, and the lines of dialogue frequently veer wildly off-topic, prolonging some scenes beyond what is necessary but adding to the satirical wackiness.

Amy Adams gets a small role but makes a big impression as Ricky's mousy assistant who turns into a tiger helping Ricky fight his demons. Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby burns rubber with enthusiasm, but of course it's the big career wreck and subsequent recovery that grabs all the attention.

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