“America is all about speed.
Hot, nasty, bad ass speed.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936
Remember the scenes in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild are hanging out, shooting the shit and partying, the sweet awkwardness of their friendship and the manic goofiness of their exchanges? Take away the cocaine that fuelled a lot of that and replace it by sheer stupidity and you get an idea of the wildly enjoyable duo at the heart of “Talladega Nights”. John C. Reilly is as fun as he’s ever been and Will Ferrell considerably ups the level of comic insanity, no offence to Mark Wahlberg.
Equally hilarious is the interplay between Ferrell’s titular NASCAR superstar and his arch-nemesis, Formule Un expat Jean Girard, who’s portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as the genius star of “Da Ali G Show” and the upcoming “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”. Bobby and Girard couldn’t be more different: one’s a beer-drinking, Baby Jesus-loving American blowhard with a blonde bimbo trophy wife and troublemaking kids named Walker and Texas Ranger; the other’s a jazz-loving, Macchiato-drinking, Camus-reading French homosexual who casually entertains the likes of Elvis Costello and Mos Def over brunch!
And that’s not all – the central relationship of the film might actually be the one between Ricky and his deadbeat dad Reese (Gary Cole), who gave him his love of speed (“I’m goin’ fast!”) and his competitive spirit (“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”), even though he has hardly ever been present in his life. You could say Bobby’s been winning all these races for his absent father, but don’t expect too much sentimentality – this only leads to more over the top silliness.
The plot closely mirrors that of Anchorman, following an incomprehensibly successful macho moron as he falls from grace, hard, then makes a triumphant return to his chosen field. After a spectacular wreck, Ricky Bobby is fired by his race team, dumped by his wife and betrayed by his best friend. Worse, the once unshakable stock car driver is now paralysed by fear and unable to race anymore. Yet with the help of a deceivingly timid girl (Amy Adams), his old man and a cougar (!), our redneck hero will find himself back on the track and ready to take on all comers, starting with that Eurotrash fool.
“Talledaga Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, while not quite as focused and inspired as Anchorman, still made me laugh as hard and often as any movie in recent memory, and it confirms that Adam McKay is one of the best comedy directors around. We’re not talking great mise en scène here, but there’s something to be said about the ability to create a climate where performers have the freedom to try out “many improvisational variations of their scripted scenes” (as worded in the press kit), all in the service of making each moment the funniest they can. Mission accomplished.