Despite what the people behind Talladega Nights might tell you, the film makes its target audience — NASCAR fans, rednecks, Red Staters of various descriptions — look like a bunch of idiots. It’s the most insidious satire in some time, inviting those it lampoons to pay 10 bucks to laugh, unwittingly, at themselves. Whether it proves a hit depends on whether anyone catches on. Because it also seems at first just another dumb-ass comedy in the Hee-Haw tradition, though certainly less rancid than road apples like Joe Dirt or The Dukes of Hazard. To indulge the obligatory race-car analogy: Talladega starts out slow, picks up speed in the middle, and nearly crashes and burns in the end.
LAUGHING WITH OR AT NASCAR FANS?: Check the box office to find out.
The dull introductory montage lays out the back story of Ricky Bobby, who’s first seen in utero being sped with mom Lucy (Jane Lynch) to the hospital by ne’er-do-well dad Reese (Gary Cole), a would-be race-car driver and full-time moonshiner. Reese abandons him, but the unborn Ricky Bobby will inherit dad’s addiction to speed. Young Ricky Bobby’s mantra is a mindless “I wanna go fast.” In a rare surprise visit, dad amends that to “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” as in “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.” It’s an early warning sign that director Adam McKay and star and co-screenwriter Will Ferrell have more than a little mischief in mind. Their raucous Anchorman made some pungent points about male opacity and the folly of the media. Here they slyly zero in on such all-American virtues as fundamentalism, xenophobia, sloganeering, over-simplification, self-righteous ignorance, and fast food.
Driven by the need to fulfill Reese’s all-or-nothing ethos, adult Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) roars to the top of the NASCAR ranks, lands trophy wife Carley (Leslie Bibb), and sires two hilariously feral boys. He also enjoys a best buddy and racing mate, Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly, demonstrating a demented comic gift). Going by the slogans “Thunder and Lightning,” and, more inanely, “Shake and Bake,” the pair always finish first and second, with the slavishly devoted Cal seemingly unfazed by always being number two.
If the fancy family dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken that ends up in a seemingly improvised debate about whether the Lord should be seen as “Baby Jesus” or as an adult in a tuxedo doesn’t give away Talladega Nights’ agenda, maybe the arrival of Ricky Bobby’s nemesis, French “Formula Une” champ Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), will. A compendium of all the right-wing invective heaped on John Kerry and the other surrender monkeys of the world, Girard crushes Ricky Bobby with existential savoir faire. Is he a parody of the left? Maybe so, but I was laughing not so much at a caricature of my own point of view as at how the Ricky Bobbys of the world might characterize it.