Comedy filmmaking has been dying a slow, painful death. It’s time we look to the masters for guidance.
Writer/director Adam McKay is a good place to start. Before venturing into dramatic territory with “The Big Short” and “Vice,” he gave us such classics as “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers.”
McKay’s second film, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” never quite gained the cult-status that his other works did. Yet years after its 2006 release, it proves to be a smarter and more expertly crafted movie than people give it credit for.
The film has a fairly standard premise for a sports comedy. When hot-shot NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell, who co-wrote and starred in most of McKay’s films) gets in a career-damaging accident, he’s forced to return to his hometown roots and train with his father (Gary Cole) to regain his confidence.
This set-up could have easily been butchered, but McKay and Ferrell save the day by making Ricky a fully-developed character with a compelling arc. The same character who says things like, “I wake up in the morning, and I piss excellence,” has deep insecurities and the need to prove himself to the father who abandoned him.
Even better, Ricky’s drive to win is a metaphor for America’s inferiority complex. When French racer Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) enters the scene, our hero scrambles to list innovations his country brought to the world (he’s unsuccessful) and lets Jean break his arm instead of saying he loves crepes. McKay was never afraid to mix commentary with sex jokes, and his insights are still relevant today.
Dramatic scenes that would be rushed or overdone in other comedies, like the aforementioned crash or Ricky realizing he can drive again, are given just enough wait without souring the silly tone.
Other scenes stand out thanks to the crew’s keen filmmaking instincts, from beautiful cinematography to Tarantino-esque soundtrack choices (Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and Marie Laforêt’s French cover of “Paint it Black” are highlights).
But above all else, “Talladega Nights” is hilarious. Whereas modern comedies let a couple of characters crack jokes and force the rest of the cast to play it straight, this one fills its world with dozens of absurd personalities. John C. Riley, Jane Lynch, Michael Clarke Duncan and the rest of the ensemble are clearly having a blast in their roles, and the fun is contagious. Plus, everyone proves to be masters at improvisation, creating a unique, collaborative experience.
As you continue to binge-watch in quarantine, don’t forget about this little gem. Its humor may be inconceivably stupid, but it proves itself as one of the most intelligent comedies of the 2000s.
Shake and bake, baby!