“Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby” has become my cinematic cause celebre for the moment. Full Disclosure: I'm a sucker for any film that surprises me, something which rarely, if ever, happens these days.
So-called “deep think films" - works with messages, movies that came on the scene with the word IMPORTANT stamped on them - tend be the least interesting films to review or analyze. That’s because, in most serious films, the seriousness is all over their surface. There is nothing to really dig into because, surprisingly, most of these films have precious few layers. I’m thinking of titles such as “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Hours.” They are what they are, without anything hidden. There's nothing to search for, nothing underneath. It's all exposed.
Much more interesting are those mainstream-escapist movies that have subtle subterranean messages couched in their seemingly disposable plotlines. A lot of them are allegories that never bother to announce that they are allegories – and an excellent case in point is Adam McKay’s “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby,” which utterly took me by surprise when I saw it last summer and has turned out to be – dare I say it? – one of the year’s very best films. Certainly, it is one of the year’s most deliciously subversive flicks.
As much as the film caught me unguarded, I was equally surprised (1) that its target audience accepted it, despite what I saw as an obvious agenda and (2) that so many critics didn't "get it," hastily dismissing it as just another silly summer escapist entertainment for guys (read: yahoos). Personally, I went just to kill some time and ended up being blown away.
“Talladega Nights” is a brilliant satire, a very shrewd and crafty – and highly original – political allegory. It would be easy to say it was an "accident" but, no, I actually think that some serious, barbed thought went into this film.
Will Ferrell essentially does a wicked buffoon impersonation of President George W. Bush, playing his NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby with equal amounts of arrogance, willful ignorance and delusions. He is totally sold on himself – the perfect narcissist – and totally oblivious and clueless about who he is and how he comes across.
Anyway, Ricky meets his match - and is immediately threatened by - Jean Girard (Sasha Baron Cohen, in a truly eccentric and restrained performance), an openly gay French driver out to defeat (and humble) Ricky Bobby.
Cohen has a few monologues in the film, directed at Ricky Bobby, pointing out exactly how limited Ricky is and how he hates anything he doesn't understand or anything that's different. To which Ricky Bobby routinely responds (with Ferrell brilliantly affecting President Bush’s vocal inflections), "America is the greatest country in the world!"
There's a great saloon showdown, in which Cohen defeats Ferrell and demands, "Say it! Say, 'I.. love... crepes.'" Ricky finally agrees to say it when his buddy Cal (John C. Reilly) explains that crepes are "skinny pancakes."
In one scene, Cohen is shown racing around the track while effortlessly reading Camus' "L'Etranger"! While the film was out, there was some nonsensical press about Bush's summer reading being "The Stranger." Think this notion came from a White House staffer/provocateur who saw the film? It's too much of a coincidence.
The movie works as a wonderful take on the clash of red-state-mentality with blue-state thinking. The film isn't really that subtle but if you dig deep enough, you'll find some amazingly political references. I personally thought it was kind of obvious, so it surprised that most people looked right through it and saw what they wanted to see – namely, a Will Ferrell frat-house comedy.
And the fact is, the movie does play on two distinctly different levels - and works on those levels. This is especially evident by the fact that the audience is never invited or encouraged to dislike or laugh at Cohen's gay French character. They actually sit there and accept the fact that the Frenchman is inarguably superior to Ricky Bobby – and, by extention, also an inspiration to him. Ricky spends the rest of the film trying to rehabilitate himself.
The high point has Jean Girard challenging Ricky Bobby to kiss him on the lips – a shot that McKay lets linger and that the audience fully accepts. No wincing here. And after the kiss, Cohen says to Ferrell, "You taste like an American." I've seen the film three times and was amazed by how much anti-American subversiveness that it dishes out.
There’s also an extended dinner-table sequence devotedly mostly to a prayer of grace to "the Baby Jesus." The sequence's gleefully unrestrained irreverence is better – and more outspoken – than anything in the many indie films that come on the scene announcing themselves as "biting social comedies" but that actually dare or risk little.
And this exchange is a keeper:
Ricky Bobby: "OK, exactly what have the French given the world?"
Jean Girard: "Democracy, existentialism and the menage-a-trois."
Cal (missing one perfect beat): "They're three pretty good things."
When Jean Girard asks Ricky and Cal what Americans have contributed to the world, all they can come up with is Pizza (from Italy actually), Chinese food (from China) and ... taquitos. Priceless.
One last thing: Moviegoers go into films in specific states of mind, depending on the film in question. We're more on the ball at serious films. When one goes to see a serious film with a message – again, such as “The Hours” – one is geared up to learn something. You sit erect and take in the lesson.
But we're more vulnerable, almost childlike, when we go to see a film that's strictly escapist/entertainment. Less on guard, we let down our defenses. We're not there to learn anything – just be entertainment - and are more likely to be seduced in the dark. A film like “Talladega Nights” invites audiences to kick back and relax and let the film flow over them. We're unaware that we're being fed anything but entertainment, unware of the possible messages coming at us subliminally. When this happens, "entertainment" films have the potential to be much more potent (and sometimes more dangerous) than a film hyped as having a Big Message.
"Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby" becomes available on DVD today, December 12th.
(Artwork: from top: Still shots of Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Sasha Baron Cohen in Columbia Pictures' "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby")
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