Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby takes a couple of things I have no interest in and puts them on-stage together, giving them as much time as possible to convince me that they’re both trash. Here is a satire of NASCAR starring Will Ferrell. Those are your two things. Ferrell wants me to believe that NASCAR isn’t particularly interesting, and he’s going to spend time running around in his underwear, pretending to be one fire, to convince me that he’s not worthy of my attention either. Mission accomplished, I guess.
For his entire life, Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) has loved cars. His dad (Gary Cole) is, or was, a race car driver, although father and son haven’t exactly been on good terms. The elder man hasn’t attempted to keep contact with his son all that much, showing up intermittently, like at Career Day when he tells Ricky: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” This ends up influencing Ricky so much that he uses those words to define his life. Fast-forward to adult Ricky, and he’s now working at NASCAR. Not as a driver — he’s in the pit crew — but that will soon change.
The team he works with has the worst kind of driver: A lazy, narcissistic one who doesn’t care about winning. He leaves to get a burger in the middle of the race, and the supervisor (Michael Clarke Duncan) asks if anyone wants to fill in. Ricky volunteers, and manages to take the team from last place to third. In one race, he becomes the new driver, eventually becoming the best driver in all of NASCAR. He acquires a beautiful wife (Leslie Bibb), his best friend, Cal (John C. Reilly), is given a race car, and everything seems to be going perfectly for him. Even his kids are acting exactly how he wants them to (and that’s not well, folks).
Of course, all sports movies like this need both a foil and a reason for the “hero” to give up the game only to return to attempt to defeat the foil. A Frenchman named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) plays the part of Ricky’s enemy, while the reason that Bobby might stop racing is a traumatic crash which leaves him in a wheelchair. Most of the film’s runtime is spent building up to the Talladega 500, where Ricky might once again face Jean to regain his pride and everything else that he lost after the crash.
I once read a statistic that said approximately 75% of people who go to a NASCAR event go for the spectacular (and frightening) crashes that are likely to occur. Whether or not that’s true, I’ve never had an interest in the sport, crashes included. For what it’s worth, I thought the actual racing scenes in Talladega Nights were well-crafted, even if they weren’t particularly engaging. We get a lot of shots from the exteriors of the car, surprisingly, and it feels as if these actors are really racing, and could potentially crash. Movies can be magical sometimes, can’t they?
Mostly, the plot is just an excuse to give Will Ferrell a reason to attempt to make us laugh. Admittedly, I sometimes did, which, considering some of Ferrell’s other comedies, is a surprise. But my laughter didn’t usually come from Ferrell. Instead, it was usually the supporting cast with the better jokes and actual humorous moments. They are set-up better, I suppose, compared to the random insanity that Ferrell brings. Would you rather watch a man run around in his underwear or hear characters joking about it? The former is Ferrell, while the latter is the supporting cast.
Despite this, the plot doesn’t really have a focus, jumping around as much as it wants to as long as a joke comes out of it. Let’s put it another way: A cougar somehow gets involved in the middle of the suburbs. Does it make sense? Nope. Is it kind of funny? Sure, I guess, as long as seeing someone mauled by a cougar makes you laugh, you sick, sick individual. Actually, that’s a problem with the entire film. There’s no danger here. We always know that the characters, one way or another, will come out okay. In NASCAR, death is a possibility. In this film, even the most horrendous crashes will have its characters walk away with minor injuries.
There’s no real villain either. Both Jean and Cal fill that role for different points, but neither one really seems to be all that bad. I liked both of their characters more than Ferrell’s, as they actually had a shred of humanity (and, possibly, realism). Granted, they’re all comically played over-the-top, but at least the “bad guys” could possibly be real people. You like them because they’re not complete narcissists. They also have more hidden motives, unlike Ricky who just leaves everything out on the line. He wants fame and money, nothing else. Does that sound like the type of person who can carry an entire film? He wasn’t to me, although I never even really saw him as his own character. He was Will Ferrell playing a character the entire time. Maybe, at this point Ferrell always has that aura surrounding him.
What else do you want from me? It’s a Will Ferrell comedy, this time with the focus being on NASCAR. If you generally like Ferrell, then you’ll want to watch this film. If you don’t, then you probably won’t have a ton of fun. It’s kind of funny, and it’s not like it’s not marginally entertaining, but it knows its target audience, they know it, and if you’re not in that group, you’re pretty much just wasting your time watching this movie.