I can’t think of a film more rife with product placement than TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY. Yet, this backhanded homage NASCAR, not to mention every sports film cliché ever devised, requires nothing less to make one of its many satirical points. Hence the eponymous Ricky doesn’t just sport the name of a popular white bread on his car, helmet, and baseball cap, no, he is also contractually obligated to mention a particular sports drink while saying grace at his own dinner table, the one spread with popular varieties of pizza and chicken rather than home-cooking.
We never learn if that’s also a contractual obligation, or if it’s just the fact that Ricky’s wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb) doesn’t cook. As she puts it, she’s a driver’s wife, meaning she doesn’t work at anything but her looks. And trying to get Ricky to invoke the grown-up Jesus during grace rather than the baby one that Ricky prefers because of the whole Christmas thing. The ensuing discussion about the relative merits of each that involves Ricky, Carley, their kids, Walker and Texas Ranger, plus Carley’s father and Ricky’s best pal Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C Reilly) is a parsing of faith and its trappings worthy of theological commentary, not to mention being weirdly wonderful. The next part, though, when Ricky and the Mrs. get down and dirty on the table itself, not so much. It is this scene better than any other that perfectly crystallizes the film as a whole, which is that when it is good, it is sublimely ridiculous and when it is bad, it is wretchedly inept.
Like all hackneyed sports films, Ricky came up the hard way, that would involve the wastrel father with authority issues. But Ricky had a best pal who stuck up for him when dad let him down, and he had a need for speed from the very beginning that, along with the classic moment of desinty that gave him his big break, let him achieve his dreams despite all obstacles, including the fact that while he is a natural behind the wheel, he’s a few sparks short of full ignition brain-wise. Not that it matters with the money rolling in, the trophy wife, and the best pal who is content to always come in second. That all changes when the team’s fed-up owner (Greg Germann) brings in a new driver, and from France no less. Before you can say crepe Suzette, and in one of the film’s nicer moments, Ricky refuses to, Ricky’s confidence is shaken to the core with a bad accident that leaves him delivering pizzas on a bicycle, and Cal married to his ex.
Farrell, as he did in ELF, brings that absolute conviction to absolute cluelessness and when the script supports him, it’s magic. Also magic is Gary Cole as Ricky’s dope-dealing father, who plays criminally negligent with a dry delivery and an impish attitude that says that he really doesn’t give a crap, he’s just messing with Ricky in particular and the world in general. It leads to the film’s single best moment, the one worth the price of admission, when he tries to teach Ricky to overcome his fear by telling him to get into his car and drive despite the wild cougar that he has placed therein. It is a perfect set piece, the timing from both of them, Farrell merging wariness with a hopeful sort of trust, and Cole’s amused interest that has nothing invested in how it all turns out. Also good are Reilly as Ricky’s best pal, no brighter than Ricky, but further hobbled by hero-worship, Sacha Baron Cohen, deliciously supercilious as the Blake-spouting, Camus-reading, machiatto-drinking French ringer, Lesley Bibb as Ricky’s determinedly gold-digging wife, and Jane Lynch as Ricky’s mother, an earth mother with a vengeance. Meanwhile Amy Adams as Ricky’s assistant, and Michael Clarke Duncan as his team point man are criminally underused, as are a host of other supporting players who pop up and then are gone as though someone used a dull pair of pinking shears to do a final edit. As for the NASCAR celebrities and television commentators that make cameos, they do their jobs, and don’t embarrass themselves or their profession.
TALLADEGA NIGHTS should also have made better use of the racing sequences, too, beyond a few one-liners that barely pass muster as the boys speed around a big circle a few hundred times. Never mind. It may be a mixed bag, but the good more than makes up for where it goes astray.