"America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, bad-ass speed." So goes the quote that opens 'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,' attributed to one Eleanor Roosevelt. I have no idea if she really said that (I highly doubt it), but it perfectly sums up the film's gloriously silly if ultimately big-hearted skewering of white trash America. Certainly, Kentucky Fried Culture is not a new target for satire, from the days of "Hee Haw" to the entire oeuvre of Roseanne Barr to television's recent hit "My Name is Earl." But where most of blue collar comedy's top stars tend to work from within, placating the culture they are lampooning, Will Ferrell and 'Talladega Nights' stand from a far more welcome distance to their subject matter. That gives the film an acidic kick and sharp wit that makes it far more than just the extended "Saturday Night Live" skit it could have been.
The plot, as if it matters: meet NASCAR stock car racing sensation Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), whose "Win at all costs!" motto has turned him into a national hero. He and his loyal racing partner/childhood friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly) have become known to the world as "Shake" and "Bake," due to their ability to finish so many races in the top two slots (Cal, of course, always in second). But when the effete French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) challenges S 'n' B for the supremacy of the NASCAR circuit, Ricky Bobby must face his own demons and battle Girard to reclaim the pole position.
Admittedly, much of 'Talladega Nights' is scattershot. The film often veers off into random vignettes and narrative dead ends, solely in search of a good gag. Characters ramble (sometimes endlessly), saying ridiculous and vulgar things just for the fun of it, as if director Adam McKay was so in love with his cast's ability to improv that he forgot to yell "Cut." Scenes can go on far too long, with whatever plot there may be stopping dead in its tracks. Yet while I can't defend such shameless pandering to the low-brow (especially in this 122-minute "Uncut and Unrated" version), I also can't argue with warm and fuzzy feeling I got from watching Ricky Bobby doing a spot for "Maypax: The Official Tampon of NASCAR." Hey, if it's funny, who am I to complain that it doesn't make any sense?
Yet, when 'Talladega Nights' is firing on all cylinders, it really works. There is some hilarious, inspired, perceptive comedy here that goes beyond the caricatures to mine genuine human truths. As utterly ridiculous as the film gets, it keeps hold of the reins just enough so we can suspend our disbelief. We truly like Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, and Ferrell and Reilly create a chemistry that makes us believe that they could be inseparable, lifelong friends. The racing scenes also are depicted realistically (even Ricky winning a race by driving backwards seems somehow plausible), and the cast has great fun parodying the testosterone-fueled competitiveness typical of professional sports. Even Ricky Bobby's home life, though somewhat surreal, has a ring of truth to it. His kids are amusingly named Walker and Texas Ranger (played by Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell), and they get some of the best lines, while wife Carley (Leslie Bibb) turns a one-note role into something special by finding an intelligence behind the white trash cliches.
In hindsight, 'Talladega Nights' may also become known as the film that Sacha Baron Cohen did before 'Borat' made him a bankable U.S. moviestar. As Jean Girard, the gay NASCAR champion and Ricky Bobby's arch-nemesis, Cohen displays what is known as his his trademark -- a complete immersion into character. As with Borat, he refuses to condescend to the material or smirk his way through, so you never see the seams of his impersonation. Girard could have been an awful, demeaning, grotesque parody, yet Cohen never loses sight of the character's humanity while still mining every joke for maximum effect. It's a tricky tightrope act to navigate, but like the early work of Steve Carell, I think in Cohen we have the makings of comedy's next great superstar.
Courtesy of Sony, 'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby' comes to Blu-ray as a BD-50 dual-layer disc, which means it has plenty of room for a great transfer and soundtrack, plus tons of extras. And while it delivers on those last two (see the sections below), unfortunately, the video here left me really disappointed. It is certainly no fault of the technology, but rather an aesthetic decision made somewhere along the line that makes 'Talladega Nights' just about the flattest transfer I've yet seen on either next-gen format.
It doesn't seem like there is anything wrong with the source material, which looks as clean as a whistle. Grain is almost absent from the transfer, with solid blacks and consistent color saturation. I also noticed no chroma noise, compression artifacts or posterization. The film's color palette is quite bright and lively, with sun-drenched exteriors and a fine use of primary colors, in particular blues, reds and yellows. Fleshtones appear accurate, if a bit waxy.
Unfortunately, what 'Talladega Nights' suffers from is really awful contrast. I have no idea why it looks this way (and I didn't see it theatrically), but it is as if the entire image has been completely flattened out and darkened. There is zero "pop" to the presentation -- it's like watching the video through a pair of polarized sunglasses. As a result, depth and detail appear surreal and washed out, and colors are nowhere near as vibrant as they could have been. There is certainly none of the three-dimensionality I'm accustomed to with great high-def. It's hard to describe until you see it, but it is telling that the deleted scenes on this disc, which are also presented in full 1080p and 2.35:1 widescreen, look much better. It is doubly a shame, as Sony is bundling 'Talladega Nights' with the launch of its PlayStation 3 next-gen game console -- I can only hope there is just something wrong with my eyes and I'm the only one who finds 'Talladega Nights' this unwatchable.
'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby' hits Blu-ray in uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround, and it really is a mighty fine soundtrack considering that the film is a comedy. Sadly, most films of this type are usually saddled with ho-hum sound design, as if the genre doesn't deserve better. But perhaps because 'Talladega Nights is also a race car film (or at least a parody of one), it has some lively action moments that elevate the soundtrack above the ordinary.
Surround effects are quite punchy, at least during the racing scenes. A fairly immersive soundfield is created, with tight pans between channels and effective use of crowd noise and some light score bleed. The soundtrack is also nicely recorded, with clean dialogue and healthy dynamics. Low bass is fairly deep for a film like this, and the use of classic country and pop/rock songs have a hefty feel. There are even some clever sound effects utilized during the film's wacky transitions, aka lots of "whooshes" and the like. No, this won't rival 'Black Hawk Down' as your new Blu-ray demo disc, but such lively sound design certainly kick 'Talladega Nights' into high gear when it needs to be.
Sony's third BD-50 dual-layer offering, 'Talladega Nights' mirrors the studio's previous 'Click' by presenting all of its supplemental material in full 1080p high-definition video. That immediately makes me a big fan of this one, as it greatly enhances the home theater experience and that, of course, is what Blu-ray is all about. Alas, the actual content leaves something to be desired -- at least if you're actually interested in the making of 'Talladega Nights.' The filmmakers decided to stay in character and satirize the very idea of supplemental content, so what we get is a series of gags that, while somewhat funny, do eventually wear out their welcome.
Setting the tone is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Adam McKay and actor Ian Roberts, who is about, oh, eight-billed as "Kyle." But that is only the first joke of what is, I believe, the least serious commentary track I've ever heard. I'd venture to guess that about six actual production anecdotes are shared, with McKay and Roberts inventing the rest, and spouting mock-profundities on how 'Talladega Nights' transformed there lives. To wit: "This film changed many, many lives," says McKay, with absolutely no sincerity. "During the course of making this film, I changed religion four times. I lost forty pounds. I gained a hundred and forty pounds. I lost another two hundred pounds. Three times I flat-lined from heart attacks. I went blind. I regained my sight -- this is a journey we all want to share with you, if you will allow us to." To which a deadpan Roberts replies, "Enlightenment doesn't come cheap." No, it doesn't, and certainly not on this track. But if nothing else, there were times where I laughed as hard during this commentary as the movie -- it certainly is, uh, a one-of-a-kind experience...
Next up is a host of additional footage. First there are nine Deleted and Extended Scenes. As mentioned above, they look noticeably better than the transfer of the film itself, which is really frustrating. That aside, the scenes themselves were wisely snipped. Sure, there are some funny bits ("I'm Hot" and the extended "Jenga" scene in particular gave me a chuckle) but most are too short to really register high on the laugh-o-meter. There is also a way-too-short one-minute Gag Reel, which (typical of these type of things) is mostly missed takes and the cast breaking into fits of giggles. I spent the time trying to count all the product placements. Much better are "Ricky & Cal's Commercials" and "Ricky & Cal's Public Service Announcements," which kept me laughing all the way through. (My personal favorite is Ricky Bobby: "Buy Big Red gum... or go fuck yourself.")
More unused material includes "Bonus Race Car Footage," which is just a two-minute montage of the film's best car spills and thrills, sent to a peppy country instrumental. "Line-O-Rama" compiles the film's best one-liners, making it total filler. As is the four-minute "Walker, Texas Ranger," which is another "Best Of" montage of young actors Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell, who play Ricky Bobby's kids in the film ("Grandma, yer lookin' really old. Are you gonna die today?") Finally, "Will Ferrell Returns to Talladega" is a three-minute reel of the actor returning to the town he made famous during his promotional duties for the film. Livening things up are mock comments from real-life NASCAR drivers, who freely admit that Ferrell "would totally suck" if ever attempted to get behind of the wheel of a real race car.
Somewhere in all of this there is some actual making-of material. Or is there? The "Interviews" section contains about ten minutes of fake material with three pairs of actors/characters: "Ricky & Cal," "Jean & Gregory" and "Cal & Carley." All stay completely in character, and the jokes are funny enough to warrant at least one watch. Again, though, all of this parody starts to get old, and it is shame that no one involved with the making of 'Talladega Nights' could manage to be serious for even one second, at least to give us some real behind-the-scenes insight.
Rounding out the extras is the film's theatrical trailer, also presented in 1080p video, and more previews for other Sony Blu-ray titles. There is also a "NASCAR Page" that is just a quick promo spot for the organization's annual NexTel Championship.
'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby' is a movie that surprised me. I didn't think I'd care much for the film, but I haven't laughed as hard in a very, very long time. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray release leaves me conflicted. One of Sony's latest BD-50 dual-layer releases, it is chock full of fun supplements (even if all of them are total fluff) and the soundtrack is really quite good for a comedy. But the transfer has a very unappealing, flat look that I just really did not like. So, despite how crammed this disc appears, I have to recommend you give it a rent before you buy just to make sure you can live with the video quality.