Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, from a McKay and Will Ferrell screenplay, might just represent Hollywood's fullest engagement with American consumer culture (or at least NASCAR's hyperbolic variation) since Frank Tashlin's classic 1957 satire, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. Like Tashlin's comic masterwork, McKay's Ferrell vehicle (he is, surprise, the titular Ricky Bobby) utilizes a spectacle-intensive technique wherein live action commercials are inserted into the body of the film -- though in the marked exception of Talladega Nights, the products being shilled are real products, and the commercial insertions are in the middle of the film, rather in the beginning (over the credits) as with the Tashlin picture. Of course, the hand-wringing has already commenced vis-a-vis the film's mimicking of NASCAR ad culture, revealing nothing so much as the new puritanism of those who would decry the creeping presence of product placement in film art. Amazingly enough, I did not slip into Applebee's after the film -- in spite of the fact that there was actually an Applebee's in the Times Square multiplex where I saw Talladega Nights -- just like I did not make clothes out of the size fourteen women I murdered after watching The Silence of the Lambs. I do, however, find myself craving chipotle shrimp-stuffed chicken breast smothered in Monterrey Jack and a bottle of chianti, for what it's worth.
No, the point to the film's incessant commercialism is ultimately verisimilitudinal -- this is what NASCAR is like, and for those not in the know, it works: if you're a Dale Earnhart, Jr. fan, you're gonna drink Bud, and you've probably done so since you were six, when Bud Light started to taste like water to you. (Oh, all this jesting is in good fun; the truth is that I'd much rather watch NASCAR than say the NBA, and am knowledgeable enough to know that Jimmie Johnson is again in the points lead and that Jeff Gordon and Jr. are in real trouble this time.) And indeed, McKay, Ferrell, et al. make the most of this environ, which is perhaps most brilliantly sent up over one particularly juicy dinner scene, wherein, amidst a sea of Domino's boxes, KFC buckets and two liters of Coke, Ricky squabbles with his speed groupy wife over which is the best Jesus to pray to -- he prefers the infant Christ -- while his violently precocious boys, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. for short, threaten their shrinking maternal grandfather.
Speaking of grandfathers, it is their paternal grandpa and Ricky's deadbeat dad, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole, in the best grandfather performance since Gene Hackman's magnificent Royal Tenenbaum) who really chews up his scenes, particularly when he reconnects with his son to help the latter regain his love of speed -- be it in getting his son to drive with a cougar to steady his nerves or by forcing him to outrun the cops after he tapes coke to the bottom of his son's car and then proceeds to snitch on him. Likewise, John C. Reilly as his best pal Cal Naughton, Jr. and Jane Lynch as his mother prove equal to Ferrell's comic brilliance. And then, of course, there's Sacha Baron Cohen's French Formula One drive, Jean Girard, who would seek to dethrone Ricky, before later admitting that his one dream in life is to move to Stockholm with his husband (Andy Richter in the arm-candy role he was born to play) and design currency for dogs and cats.
But in the end, this is a Will Ferrell vehicle, and the big guy doesn't let us down, whether he's running around in his tighty whities convinced that he's on fire -- this happens more than you might think -- selling pork rinds or wrestling the aforesaid cougar, Ferrell shows himself again to be the most dependably funny one-man show in American screen comedy today. And if you do go, stay through the final credits for Lynch's bed time reading -- and discussion of Southern lit. -- with her grandsons. After all, this is the type of American filmmaking where little distinction can be made between the closing credit blooper reel and the gags in the picture itself.