Viking Night: Talladega Nights
By Bruce Hall
February 16, 2016
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. James T Kirk was dramatically born at the exact moment his father died fighting aliens from the future. I’m fairly certain Christopher Walken created himself. The point is, all great men have epic stories behind them. And so it is with (fictional) NASCAR prodigy Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell), who is conceived in a truck stop bathroom and delivered in the back of an American muscle car doing triple digits on the Interstate. From that day forward, his life would be dedicated to the same wanton disregard for human life.
In your face, Lincoln.
But Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) is a forward thinking man, who knows it’s not enough to bring your son into the world in such an awesomely irresponsible way. He knows that remaining a constant, positive part of his son’s life would make the boy weak and spoiled. What makes great men what they are is a desperate, lifelong search for something to fill the gaping hole where a father’s love should be. Ricky’s search takes him to NASCAR, where he and childhood friend Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C Reilly) work a very motley pit crew.
One day a driver throws in the towel mid race, and Ricky Bobby volunteers to get behind the wheel. Of course he’s a natural, and the next thing you know, Ricky and Cal are the two hottest drivers in the sport. It’s the tried and true “rise-fall-redemption” arc that’s pretty common to sports movies, biopic and satire alike. Talladega Nights kind of tries to have it both ways, with varied results. More than just a satirical biopic, the story of Ricky Bobby is also an attempt at cultural humor - right down to the main character’s name.
But it’s not just Red State culture that’s ripe for the picking. Sports culture, corporate culture, and even success and the fragile family dynamic itself are ripe for the picking. There’s an unscrupulous promoter and his perpetually drunken middle aged wife (characters you can find in every sport, by the way), and we’re reminded, on many occasions, that all French people are snooty and gay. There are a lot of valid targets here, and Talladega Nights makes relentless hay of them, all of the time. Yes there’s a story here and yes, it’s pretty generic. But whatever interest you might have in it is diluted by the film’s tendency to constantly wink and mug, as though it’s not as confident in itself as it wants you to believe.
What we’re left with is a movie that’s funny, but not as much or as often as it tries to be. It’s interesting, but only in spots. It bogs down every few minutes trying to make sure you understand that a grown man is running around in his underwear, or that Ricky is kind of dumb. And each time it happens it goes on so long that you all but forget what the point of the joke was. Adam McKay has directed other movies that also suffer from this problem (Anchorman, Step Brothers), but the common denominator they have is Will Ferrell. Ferrell is a hilarious guy, but it’s not beyond wondering whether being such a big star, people find it hard to tell him when the timer on a gag is up, and it’s best to move on.