It's the stuff of countless sports films -- the leading man is hurt on the track, and even after recovering from injury, remains too shellshocked to return to the game. Invariably enters a mentor and pep-talks the hero to get over his trauma, and Ricky Bobby is no exception as his cool dad comes to the rescue.
Except his idea of facing fear means locking Ricky in the front seat of a sportscar with a jumpy puma.
Bobby, played by Will Ferrell, walks back disheveled into the room where his mother waits inquisitively, and straight-facedly delivers the line that while he didn't learn much about driving, 'I got mauled by a cougar and my Crystal shirt is ruined.' It's an irresistibly delicious comic moment, the out-of-shape man in a 'Crystal' t-shirt grumbling to his mother. Also, it's Ferrell pulling off the dumb act as only the cleverest of actors can.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby is a cheeky film about NASCAR racing, sure, but this ain't no spoof. While jabs are taken aplenty at drivers and southern accents, there is a degree of affection to the proceedings. It's almost as if Ferrell, who co-wrote it with director Adam McKay, doesn't want to rip apart an American institution as revered as deep fried chicken. What ensues is a melee of gags scattered through a sports movie, with a madcap set of characters walking the walk, and talking the talk. And, perhaps most importantly, wearing the suits.
Motor racers have been constantly lampooned for their logo-studded jumpsuits, with hardly an inch to spare between a cola endorsement and a fast food ad. As a result, Talladega crowns itself the official motherlode of product placement, with logos plastered over everything. Heck, we even get to literally see a commercial play on screen -- it's a joke, but really. Ricky Bobby, the champion of champions, goes far enough to paste a massive logo right over his windscreen, while admitting it's dangerous 'and inconvenient.'
But that's back in the good days, when Bobby rules Nascar arm-in-arm with his wingman Cal Naughton Jr, played by a super John C Reilly. Things are about to change, and Bobby's about to discover stardom is pretty darned fickle.
It's just another evening guzzling beers, but Bobby and his redneck peers are startled as the jukebox suddenly breaks into a Charlie Parker jazz song. Physically agonised by the music, they frantically unplug the jukebox, only to be countered by a man with excessively sharp sideburns. They insult the music and the man with an insane French accent asks why the jazz was on the jukebox if no one wanted to hear it. 'We use it for profiling purposes,' the bartender growls. 'We also have the Pet Shop Boys and Seal.'
The Frenchman is undeterred by this display of ignorance. Played by Sasha Baron Cohen -- the actor better known as Ali G -- Jean Girard is the film's crown jewel, with the funniest French accent in ages. The French Formula 1 driver issues a challenge to Bobby, tries to get him to admit he loves crepes, which he inadvertently does, and ends up breaking his arm. After announcing that he will now be racing for the same team as Bobby ('Bub-bi,' naturally), he sends the room into shock by casually introducing them to his husband.
The rest of the film is war between them, a gay French racer who seems unbeatable and an oaf with an incredible ability to peel off his racing suit in record time mistakenly convinced he's on fire. While we constantly wish Cohen had more screentime, Ferrell is unmistakably earnest in his idiocy, and striking both as an egomaniac and a loser. And the side characters are terrific, from the trophy wife to the flawless mother, from the drug-peddling dad (Gary Cole is superlative), to Bobby's sons, named Walker and Texas Ranger.
It's a brutish movie, with loads of stupid laughs, but some truly neat lines (and references both obvious and obscure) buried casually in the dialogue. As Girard and Bobby prepare to go head to head, an awed Bobby likens the champion-nemesis situation to the film Highlander. Girard, who reads Albert Camus while racing his Perrier-sponsored wheels, hasn't seen it. Bobby says it got an Academy Award. Girard asks which one. 'Best Movie Made Ever,' answers Bobby, fumbling as he tries to exaggerate the importance of the film.
It's a film with a great cast, a good romp (with commercials thrown in) but remains largely formulaic. Every scene is a set-piece for some fine actors to play caricatures, but there are times the humour wears rather thin.
Talladega isn't a memorable film. It isn't anywhere close to the best racing film we saw in ages. It does, however, have its moments, is much smarter than it looks, gives us a truly fine fake Frenchman worthy of a spin-off, and is warmer than most comedies come these days. Ride on.