Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Cheap Critic: Talladega Nights.


Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a very likable film with a good cast and a good heart. It stars Will Ferrell who shares the writing credit with fellow Saturday Night Live alum, Adam McKay, who also directed. Rather than write another summary of the film when there are hundreds of servicable ones available online I will simply quote one. Here is the summary that Cartman Kun wrote for the IMDB:
NASCAR stock car racing sensation Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is a national hero because of his "win at all costs" approach. He and his loyal racing partner, childhood friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), are a fearless duo -- "Shake" and "Bake" by their fans for their ability to finish so many races in the #1 and #2 positions, with Cal always in second place. When flamboyant French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) challenges "Shake" and "Bake" for the supremacy of NASCAR, Ricky Bobby must face his own demons and fight Girard for the right to be known as racing's top driver.

Most of the castmembers are very familiar faces from television with John C. Reilly being the standout exception -- the token film guy. In cinematography, pacing and overall style the film owes a lot to television. This is particularly striking in the race scenes where a production crew with less of a television mindset would pull back, using wider shots to show more of the environment and count on the audience to focus on the action. The race scenes in Talladega nights are are shot tightly and simply with the camera always a participant and never an observer. The film is at the end of its theatrical release as I write this but with its TV roots it should work fine on DVD -- even for those with no fancy "home theaters."


In recommending this film I should confess to an idiosyncrasy of taste. There are a number of vastly popular modern comedies that I just don't like very much -- films that are funny enough but that are so larded with crassness and alienation that in the end you find yourself with nothing to like about any of the characters, or about the film itself. Talladega nights is not such a film.

Instead, it is a broad but affectionate parody of NASCAR and the redneckish NASCAR community. The film gets inside the heads of its subjects and, from that perspective, asks "what do we think is funny about us?" Ferrell and Reilly really nail their characters in loosely-scripted, mostly ad-lib scenes where half the actors are NASCAR luminaries playing themselves. The resulting comedy is broad enough to suit almost anybody -- our hero is contractually obligated to mention Power Aide whenever he says grace before a meal -- but with almost no bite of Switfean satire. If you are addicted to that bite, and cannot enjoy gentler comedy, then this film -- and most of Ferrell's work -- is not for you.

I've seen other reviewers complain that this film "offers nothing new," that the theme of a driver who loses his nerve and must face his demons to return to competition is old hat. I suspect that those reviewers miss the sarcastic bite that I mentioned above and that they simply find the film too bland. Of course the film follows the formula for a racing film. All good parodies conform to the rules of the genre they are spoofing. The best parodies are themselves good examples of subject type. Talladega Nights is quite enjoyable as a racing film. The racing scenes are well done and exciting. And of course our hero has an accident half way through the film and has to struggle to regain his nerve -- but that is not really what the film is about.

Talladega Nights is about the trancendent power of unconditional love -- the ties of family, romantic attraction and lifelong friendship that somehow cannot be destroyed despite the considerable efforts of our clueless, vain, greedy, bumbling, yet strangely likable "heros." None of the characters deserve to be loved -- but they are -- and the sport of stock car racing itslef also does not deserve to be loved -- it is loud and dangerous and highly commercialized -- but it is loved by millions. Perhaps this film does not deserve a good review. But here it is. Deal with it.

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