15 Years Later: Appreciating 'Talladega Nights', Will Ferrell And Adam McKay's NASCAR Fantasia | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

15 Years Later: Appreciating ‘Talladega Nights’, Will Ferrell And Adam McKay’s NASCAR Fantasia

In August of 2006, 15 years ago this week, star Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay released Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Co-written by Ferrell and McKay, the film was the duo’s follow-up to 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and updated that film’s gag-a-minute sensibility from 1970s San Diego local news to the contemporary NASCAR circuit. 

The unique genius of Talladega Nights was that it was a movie about NASCAR that could appeal equally to people who are devoted fans of auto racing and those who hate and look down on it. And Californian Ferrell and Philadelphia native McKay, both veterans of Saturday Night Live, were able to pull it off despite clearly not being natives of NASCAR country. 

NASCAR’s absolute heyday was the late ’90s and early 2000s, but Hollywood wouldn’t catch up to the NASCAR craze until 2006; the first Cars movie, also that year, was set in a NASCAR-like world too. 

Like Anchorman, Talladega Nights starred Ferrell as a clueless alpha male. He played the titular Ricky Bobby, a NASCAR star who competed alongside sidekick Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly).

Living with his awful wife (Leslie Bibb) and appalling young sons (named “Walker” and “Texas Ranger”), Ricky suffers a crisis of confidence once he gets into a fire-free crash, and is given a new teammate named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is both French and openly gay. 

Like in Anchorman, Ricky has to get his mojo back after being fired, and he later forms a romantic connection with Susan (a very young Amy Adams). He also reconnects with his sleazy dad (Gary Cole), who encourages Ricky to drive fast by strapping his car with “Colombian Bam-bam” (cocaine) and calls the cops. 

It all leads up to a big, ridiculous race, which ends with the competitors on foot. 

There’s not a lot of plot to Talladega Nights, like in most of the Gary Sanchez Productions canon, it’s all about the jokes, gags, and character moments. The film also leans hard on making jokes about product placement while engaging in a ton of it at the same time, like that scene with Wayne and Garth. 

The film didn’t quite penetrate the culture or create catchphrases the way Anchorman did, although it did inspire homages by the NASCAR world itself:

Talladega Nights, like a lot of films from the early 2000s, is about toxic masculinity, even if there wasn’t a name for it back then. And while it didn’t have as much unfortunate-in-retrospect stuff as, say, The Hangover, the film isn’t that great about its female characters. 

Leslie Bibb’s mean social climber wife character, in particular, plays like she was written by a men’s rights activist blogger. Much more memorable is Molly Shannon‘s turn as the team owner’s drunk wife:

McKay and Ferrell also created the Funny or Die website together, and the two of them would later work together on Step Brothers and The Other Guys, both of which are well-remembered. The two are credited together on numerous other things, including the oddball 2012 Spanish film Casa de Mi Padre, but those are the only ones in which McKay directed and Ferrell starred. However, McKay has since pivoted to “serious” films like The Big Short and Vice, and Ferrell and McKay dissolved their production company in 2019. 

Talladega Nights, which currently streams on Netflix, isn’t the greatest film Will Ferrell and Adam McKay made together, but it is the one that threaded the most difficult needle. 

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