If you sit through all the credits for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, you come to a brief scene of Ricky Bobby’s mother reading to his sons. She’s reading the final paragraph of William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” the scene where Boon Hogganbeck, terrorizing the squirrels in the squirrel tree, turns frantically and threateningly to Isaac McCaslin and cries, “They’re mine. They’re all mine.” In Faulkner’s story the scene represents the acquisitiveness and greed that have destroyed the natural beauty of the original Southern wilderness. The woods where Ike and his companions have hunted deer and bear have been sold to a logging company and will soon disappear forever, replaced eventually by farmlands and then towns and cities. In the film, when she finishes reading to the little boys, they all discuss the meaning of the conclusion, the moral ambiguity that it expresses, so essential, the grandmother explains, to American literature of the early 20th century. The boys agree that the story’s conclusion is about the transition of the Old South to the modern world.
I first learned of this scene on a Faulkner discussion list. Several members of the list wrote about it, though no one seemed to know what it meant, why it was there. I went to Talladega Nights planning to sit through the credits to find out if the scene were really there. It was.
First, of course, the scene is a joke. Many comic films end with outtakes of discarded alternate scenes or hilarious mistakes made by the actors. Certainly that is the case in Talladega Nights, which includes a number of outtakes shown just before the credits begin. The outtake involving the discussion of “The Bear” is shown by itself, after the credits have ended. I think it was placed there as a hilarious afterthought, so out of synch with the film, so improbable, and so pertinent. Where we look for randomness, we must also look for intent. I think this final outtake offers an additional level of context for a film that largely seems to be little more than a fairly well done sustained joke. Someone connected with the film, by accident or deliberate act, placed the scene at the end of the film as a commentary. Talladega Nights is about the modern Southern and American world that replaces the world of the untrammeled woods where Sam Fathers and Isaac McCaslin hunted their fabled bear.
This is not to say that the film operates in a serious dimension, or that it seeks to be anything more than what it is, a comedy about American stockcar racing, a satire of the American dream of personal satisfaction sought through the fulfillment of one’s personal dreams: “I wanna go fast.”
Talladega Nights operates pretty much on the same level as the television series “My Name is Earl,” where the satire and humor is more unrelentingly perverse, biting, and subtle. There’s more slapstick in Talladega Nights, more lampoonish caricatures of people who idolize Dale Earnardt and who, when all is said and done, are good natured, down home, country people. Both the film and My Name is Earl are subject to occasional bouts of sentimentalism, especially the film, with its formulaic portrayal of the hero who rises and falls and then struggles to rise again, winning the love of the shrinking violet who was there for him all along, especially when his career hit its nadir. In fact, there are numerous formulaic elements in the film—the long absent father who returns at the crucial moment to help his son, the opportunistic wife who deserts when his career falters, the devilish, misbehaving young sons, the incredibly thick and mumbled French accent of Ricky Bobby’s gay adversary, the drunken wife of the man who sponsors Ricky’s racing-- the list goes on. The formulas really don’t matter that much because you expect them in this kind of film, and because they are successfully, often hilariously applied.
The most comical scenes for me in Talladega Nights are the ones where Ricky Bobby explains why he prefers to pray to the baby Jesus at the supper table. People have a right to pray to the Jesus they want to pray to, he explains. In several scenes Ricky’s young sons hurl one insolent insult after another at Ricky, at his friend Cal, at their grandfather, on and on. In another scene they escape from the Sunday school where their grandmother has taken them, and then they run amuck, yelling, “Anarchy, anarchy!” One of them exclaims, “Anarchy! I don’t even know what that means.”
Like many films of this type, Talladega Nights succumbs in the end to a sentimental resolution of plot and character. But the process of reaching that point is diverting entertainment.
If Faulkner’s story, alluded to in the final scene, is any clue to a larger meaning in this film, that meaning is commercialization and commodification. At one point someone in the film explains that stock car racing developed from bootleggers who learned to drive their cats fast so they could outrun the cops. (See Thunder Road, 1958, starring Robert Mitchum and based on a story he wrote). They enjoyed the speed and began racing one another, and the American sport of stock car racing was the result. But if we’re to think that at some point or at some level that racing cars is a hallowed American tradition, in this film it is wholly commercial and commodified. The best race car drivers have the emblems of all sorts of name brands emblazoned on their cars. The name brands are an emblem of their success and fame. Ricky Bobby will endorse any product he is paid to endorse (there are hilarious outtakes at the end of the film showing some of his commercials that did not make it in to the film).
Product placement in the film seems intentionally self-referential— it’s self-parody. Ricky Bobby’s family goes to Applebee’s twice for dinner, and at a crucial moment at the end of the film, in the middle of a slow-motion crash sequence, described by one of the announcers as the longest crash he remembers ever seeing, an advertisement for Applebees interrupts, as if to say that the whole thing is product placement, all of modern America is product placement, crass, obvious, greedy, product placement.