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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ten Years Later... Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen

First of all, I had completely forgotten that Amy Adams is in this. This came out right after she received her first Oscar nomination (for Junebug) and right before she really started to hit it big with Enchanted. It's too bad Talladaga Nights doesn't use her more because, as anyone who has seen Drop Dead Gorgeous knows, she can be hilarious. Anyway, the movie. It came out ten years ago today and was the second (or third, if you count Wake Up, Ron Burgundy:The Lost Movie) collaboration between Will Ferrell and writer/director Adam McKay. It's not their best movie together, but it's still their most successful in terms of domestic box office. All in all, it's aged pretty well.

The Story

Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) has it all: he's rich, he's got a mansion and multiple sports cars, he's got a hot wife and sons they've named Walker and Texas Ranger (T.R. for short), and not only does he get to do what he loves (race cars) but he can claim to be the best at it. Which is good, because his motto is that if you're not first, you're last. But Ricky's life is shaken, first by the arrival of a fierce new competitor, the French star Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), then by an accident which instills a fear of driving into him, and then by the loss of everything he loves to his former best friend Cal (John C. Reilly). Now his only hope may lie in accepting the help of his estranged father (Gary Cole) who, like him, understands the need for speed.

The View From 2006

The Good: "Talladega Nights goes for broke, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. But at its best, it scales the heights of cinematic Dadaism and affirms that Ferrell and McKay are among the few... trying to breathe new life into the atrophied American screen comedy." - Scott Foundas, L.A. Weekly

The Bad: "It drags where it should be crackling and popping. The problem isn't that Talledega Nights is silly. (We like silly!) It's that it can't sustain the wonderfully manic pace of the film's first 30 minutes, and after that, the silliness often falls flat" - Teresa Wiltz, Washington Post

The View From 2016

I confess that I've never thought all that highly of Talladega Nights compared to the other collaborations between Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. It's funny, but not as funny as Anchorman or The Other Guys, and I've never thought about it as containing the thematic ambitions of those films (Anchorman might be thought of as a joke machine, but it also offers a biting, even if broad, take on sexism, and The Other Guys has thematic concerns which set the stage for McKay's most recent picture The Big Short). Ten years later I wonder if I've sold Talladega Nights a bit short. I still don't think it's as funny as the other films, but I've come around to thinking that maybe, possibly, Talladega Nights might be doing subtly what Idiocracy, released just a month later, does more explicitly, namely, pointing out the slippery cultural slope we were teetering over a decade ago and which has set the stage for a Presidential election where someone as unqualified, incoherent, and morally bankrupt as Orange Foolius is within arm's reach of the Oval Office.

The difference between Idiocracy and Talladega Nights, other than the fact that one is set 500 years into the future, is that the former makes the case that the world is in peril because culture is being dumbed down as a result of the "wrong" people having too many children and the "right" people having too few, with the wrong people characterized as being poor because they're ignorant rednecks, and the right people characterized as being rich because they're educated and WASPy; while the latter (though it also tends to associate a southern twang with lesser intelligence and refinement) recognizes that rich people can be dumb and obnoxious, too, and can have interests in entertainment like NASCAR, which pop culture commonly characterizes as being of lowbrow appeal.

But more than that, in hindsight, the film is highlighting some of the more ridiculous lowest common denominator aspects of Bush era culture. Consider Ricky's rival, the French Formula One racer Jean Girard. If Ricky is representative of the idea of "America" - brash, overly and even blindly confident, and unwilling to compromise (even if it means getting his arm broken) - and Jean is the idea of "France" - sophisticated, pretentious, sexually open - then the battle between the two is less a battle of two men then of two cultures (an idea supported by the fact that Ricky's discomfort with Jean always seems to have more to do with his foreigness than his position as the competition), one which is ultimately resolved with Ricky as the victor, but only once he's made to recognize that he's been a selfish jackass up until that point. Then consider some of what was going on at the time the film was being written and produced. Most of us will recall the infamous gesture of empty patriotism which demanded the replacement of the word "French" with "Freedom" to describe things like fries and toast because of France's refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq. I personally had forgotten (because the idea is so fucking stupid I still kind of can't believe it happened) that that wasn't just rhetoric and bluster but an actual change mandated in all of the cafeterias serving the House of Representatives. That was in 2003. The mandate wasn't rescinded until August 2, 2006. That means that there were people who stood by that idiocy for 3 years, all while demanding to be taken seriously as policy makers. That's where things were at culturally in 2006 so it's tempting to look at Talladega Nights as McKay holding up a mirror and saying, "Look how stupid this has gotten. Get it together."

But, then again, maybe Talladega Nights doesn't mean anything and it really is just a silly movie about a guy who likes to drive fast and has to lose everything in order to recognize what really matters. What do I know? Shake and bake, y'all.

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