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August 18, 2006

Talladega Nights and George Bush's America
Posted by Michael Signer

So I wasn't sure if a post on Talladega Nights would be timely, but as the movie is number one in America for the second week in a row, how could it be more timely?

You might not think a movie about an erstwhile NASCAR racer, bedeviled by inner demons and subjected to the wiles of a catty trophy wife, insane children, and fickle fans would be connected to foreign policy.

Oh, how wrong you are.

This movie perfectly captures -- and in a wonderfully transparent, entirely non-ironic sense -- the ethos of the Bush Administration, and the internal, domestic struggles that inevitably color and even drive our actions toward the outer world.  In a hundred years, cultural anthropologists could watch this movie and learn something.

What's most striking is how unironic and unreflective the movie's embrace of juvenalia is, and how seriously it places adolescent thinking alongside normal modes of reasoning.  Lest you think I'm some sort of fuddy-duddy, I will have you know that I love '80's comedies -- I've seen Fletch probably 100 times and am a thoroughly knowledgeable scholar of the oeuvre of Bill Murray.

But there was something different about this movie.  I talked it over with a friend who's about my age, and he pointed out that in all the great '80s movies, there was always a character who was smarter than everyone else, who served as an Everyman in a particularly enlightened, wisecracking way.  Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones or Star Wars, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, even Chevy Chase in Spies Like Us -- these were great roles, and they were helped by the glint in the stars' eyes, the ribbing, the constant sense of intelligence.  The stars were our agents in the movie.  They represented Everyman in an unfamiliar, zany, comic world -- but because they were smart, sarcastic, and perceptive, we saw the world without blinkers on.  Perhaps you could even argue that we gained insight -- the demon-infested world of Ghostbusters' New York City somehow made a little more sense when we watched Dr. Venkman try to piece it together.

OK.  Now consider Talladega Nights.  There isn't a single intelligent major character in the show.  Not only that, there's not one even character of average intelligence in the show.  Watching the world through the eyes of any of these confused, muddled people would yield a similarly hazy, addled perspective on things.  Ricky Bobby?  Forget about it.  He's half-cracked even to begin, and proceeds through a mania of teenage humor (the "shake and bake" handshake was slightly funny a couple of times, and then became simply a parody of gesture humor -- like laughing at the very act of pointing at a geek in class -- the pointing becomes, somehow, funny -- sort of).  Carl, the character played by John C. Reilly, seems on the verge of drooling the entire movie.  The only characters who have even a glint of intelligence are Ricky Bobby's mother, a tough Southern grandmother sort, and the completely bizarre and almost totally unfunny gay French driver, Jean Girard, played by Ali G (well, really Sacha Baron Cohen).  But the grandmother's minor and too severe for us to identify with her, and Girard is so totally alienated from the framework of the movie -- so completely an outsider (for you pomo types, an Other) that to identify with him would cause us to reject the movie.

But why is this important?  Because there's a worldview here, both domestic and international, and the affirmative stupidity of the Weltanschauung comes to defines the sorts of ideas that can be contemplated -- the sort of world we can have.  Domestically, the movie presents the most determinedly stupidized concept of Southern culture we've seen since The Dukes of Hazzard.  I was raised in Virginia and so perhaps watch these things a little more suspiciously than your average coastal voter.  And I understand the good fun of having a deep South family dine on KFC and Taco Bell -- in their dining room.  And pray to a "little baby Jesus" for five minutes (this last riff was one of the only truly funny moments in the movie).  But the movie cannot distinguish satire from savagery from reality.  Its condescension toward Southerners is so relentless and only episodically lighthearted that it ends up generating the sort of posture we find among some in the Bush Administration -- an unreflective, unenlightened, calcified, hardened sort of Southern ressentiment, which ends up basically in a sort of self-hating self-parody. 

It's similar to George Allen's recent mocking of an Indian-American Democratic volunteer who was filming Allen as a "macaca" and telling him, "Welcome to America."  I mean, who does that?  It seems like it could only happen in the movies.  Aha -- there's the rub. 

But then there's an even more malevolent element here -- the movie's approach to the outside world.  I like to make fun of the French as much as anyone.  And the news that they're going to pull back their commitment to Southern Lebanon is dismally (but unsurprisingly) disappointing.  Their self-involvement and weird and unjustified need for international ego-stroking is a constant thorn in the side of rational policymaking.

Still.  Do we really need -- in 2006, in the number-one movie in America two weeks in a row -- to diminish the French by saying they're gay?  This becomes not an incidental gag to Talladega Nights or even a subplot.  One of the critical hinges of the movie is the fact that Cohen's Jean Girard is gay -- has a husband, in fact -- and tries to kiss Ricky Bobby.  The hostility/fascination toward gay people mounts and mounts until Carl discloses -- in a breathless plot point -- that he posed in Playgirl for Ricky Bobby.  And, in one of modern cinema's most bizarre climaxes ever, the movie ends with Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard kissing each other -- a long, sustained kiss -- after Ricky Bobby beats Jean Girard in a footrace.

If there were any room between the satire and the plot -- between intelligence, if you will, and juvenalia -- then we could perhaps get something out of the exercise.  Sure, Ricky Bobby's character is unable to conceive of foreign, mysterious, and vaguely hostile France as anything but "gay" -- literally and figuratively.  But the kiss at the end would evidence not just detente but progress.  We would move upward and on.

But no.  The fascination and need to tear apart anything not-American (France) as the one thing that leaps to adolescent minds as beneath contempt (gay) ends in a muddled, pent-up, confused plot point.  And the movie ends in a gnarled conceptual bundle, neither satire nor comedy, neither commentary nor plot-driven great comedy -- just, basically, a wholehearted embrace of stupidity qua stupidity, and condescension both toward real Americans (the millions of intelligent, hardworking, and patriotic Americans who really do happen to love NASCAR as much as these Hollywood producers love their mudbaths and oxygen bars) and anyone who's not American.

It would all be funny, except -- as noted -- it's the number-one movie in America -- two weeks in a row.

Welcome to George Bush's America. 


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But, was it worth seeing?

I don't think you fully understood the movie, but then I don't think I fully understood your post.

The movie was meant to be ironic, i.e. Ricky Bobby as Bush (see
Almost the same character.

Since the movie was making fun of NASCAR culture, I think it's safe to assume it was not making fun of gays and the French. To criticize the movie for mocking Southerners might be legitimate (although NASCAR culture is not exclusive to the South), but to criticize it for being hostile to outsiders misses the point of the movie.

It was an utterly gormless film. It was not meant to make any sort of point. the makers kenw that the vast majority of America like the Will Ferrell cheap laugh. This went overboard though- with Ferrell thinking he was on fire when he crashed- what WAS that? it is extremely unfortunate that it is number 1 for two weeks in a row, but not surprising.

Uh, yeah, the first 20 or 30 minutes of this movie was a perfect allegory of the bush admin. -

Going it alone?

The dumb southern guy being a winner?

The whole point of; racing not being about a team, but about personal gain?

And on and on?

I had this nagging suspicion, and this is the first time i thought to check online, and lo and behold...

whoever scripted this movie totally had current u.s. politics/world affairs/bush bashing in mind.
(terry schivo, (however you spell it) homosexuality, the french-

I f-ing loved this movie. It was funny, and plus i see a whole sub-message. And an important one: we are f-cked up and we are funny.

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