days of being dumb

I went into Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby with low-to-middling expectations — I basically expected a bunch of mildly funny, overlong Will Ferrell bits on cretinous NASCAR drivers and fans. Few directors seem to be able to mold something coherent from Ferrell’s free-flow improvisations, and even a streamlined show like Judd Apatow’s one-season wonder Undeclared (let alone a sketch show like SNL) could grind to a halt when Ferrell was given too much license.

But former SNL director Adam McKay (who, like Ferrell, worked at one time with improv terrorists Upright Citizens Brigade) knows how to cast Ferrell’s goofy riffs into a shape that will actually fit into a story. And there’s a surprising amount of story here — not deep, but enjoyably thorough. We get, of course, the obligatory background on Ricky Bobby, NASCAR champion, showing a love for speed embedded in his psyche from the moment of birth. But these scenes, whose basic conception is almost unavoidably obvious (isn’t it inevitable that boy Ricky will steal the family car and go joyriding?), are handled with a sense of unity and wholeness that makes them more than throwaways. While they primarily exist for the sake of their gags, they also unobtrusively establish objects and relationships that will carry through the movie — Reese Bobby’s drag-race Chevelle, Lucy Bobby’s patient, sardonic interaction with her son. And the gags themselves never abuse our intelligence — the film’s attention to detail is typified by the fact that it doesn’t forget to show us how a small child could drive a stationwagon.

Of course, the vast majority of the film deals with Ricky Bobby as a cheerfully monomaniacal twit of an adult, the kind of man who prays to “baby Jesus” because that’s the Jesus he likes best (but who also has a perversely convincing theological explanation for why that’s okay). Starting out in a pit crew for a losing team, he leaps into the car in the middle of a dismal race to take third, and from there his rise to stardom is obvious. He surrounds himself with equally dim and superficial dingdongs — a second-fiddle best friend, a gold-digging wife, two dreadful and aggressive kids — but everything starts to go haywire when a mincing French nihilist (Sacha Baron Cohen, s.k.a. Ali G) sponsored by Perrier arrives on the scene and destroys Ricky’s career.

Again, the rest of this plot should be obvious to anyone who’s ever seen, oh, Rocky III, or really any movie ever — Ricky Bobby goes down, and then back up, becoming a better man in the process. But if the general form of the film was long ago encased in stone, still, within its fossil walls it manages to thrive, creating its own world. It takes endearing dumbness among NASCAR racers (not to mention homosexuality and despair among Europeans) as a starting point, but quickly leapfrogs its own stereotypes to explore weirdnesses rooted in heartland subculture but unique and charmingly individual. Gags are exploited, imploded, and then turned into something new. When Ricky Bobby suffers the first crash of his career, he ends up with barely a scratch on him but comes out of the ER convinced he’s paralyzed. We know where this joke is going — he stabs himself in the leg to prove his condition — but the two or three minutes of hysterical struggle Ferrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, and John C. Reilly wring out of trying to get the knife out of the leg totally redeem the obviousness of the setup. Every joke works this way — the joke we expect, and are prepared to laugh at, is always given another half-turn.

Finally, this movie wouldn’t be half as much fun as it is if McKay didn’t take such obvious and gleeful delight in NASCAR racing itself. The race scenes here are as technically splashy as the animated ones in Cars, and McKay’s sense of the beauty and terror of bodies in flight more closely resembles football movies like Any Given Sunday and Jerry Maguire than any racing film I’ve seen before. From the first shots of the raceway, in which stock cars barrel into the camera at frightening speeds, to Ricky and Jean’s final catalclysmic crash, this film is not too proud to dive deep into the physical reality of racing and give us a taste of the brightly-lit intensity of the track.

Clerks II is easily Kevin Smith’s best movie. I say easily because I knew it within ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps knew it even during the opening scenes of Randal (Jeff Anderson) and Dante (Brian O’Halloran) driving to work through a weedy New Jersey sprawl of burger joints to the tune of the Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers.” Smith’s cheerful zinging of pop culture icons and philosophical hot-air balloons alike has always resembled David Byrne’s bongo-bopping, eco-baiting song, but until now he had nowhere near Byrne’s grace and wit.

Happily, after much experimentation (some quite excruciating), Smith has refined his technique to a lovely, mostly masterful level. If the original Clerks was a punk rock, DIY shot across the bow of the “art film” community, suggesting that one need have no grandiose purpose or obscure vision, but merely good friends and a small ego, to make watchable, even meaningful films — if so, then this movie is an adult’s admission that careful craft can be useful in purifying and strengthening even his kind of film.

The subject of Smith’s sequel, eleven years after, is still the same — the lives of those who serve us in the least glamorous and fulfilling jobs and the struggle to find something bigger. He’s always understood that people often use those jobs as places to hide from the larger world, but in Clerks II he subtly forces our perspective, shaping a vision in which, perhaps, there is no “larger world” — or perhaps that’s only a smoothing rationalization. The ambiguity makes the substance of what the film has to say.

What the film has to offer, on the other hand, is a sublime series of riffs, fantasies, shaggy-dog stories (the infamous “interspecies erotica” thread being the furriest, though it has its moments), and many moments of sincere but subtle human interaction. This is three cuts above any other Smith film in the energy of its comedy — which should not be confused with pace, since this film, fittingly, never appears to be in a hurry. Nonetheless, it’s got a tremendous charge, and for most of its running time it generates sheer, unmixed joy. There are several mini-climaxes of this joy, which I won’t ruin, but they include an entirely justified rip on those overpuffed Lord of the Rings movies, a horrifying faux pas with a racial epithet, an exuberant and wonderfully choreographed dance number, and (my personal favorite) “Pillowpants.”

This film diverges sharply from Clerks, however, in having a very linear and concentrated plot. If Clerks was a series of scenes in a fundamentally static environment, Clerks II is all about movement. The paralysis of the characters milked for laughs and poignancy in the first film has become an urgent problem in this film, as the characters drift into their thirties, putting on weight, their skin showing the first signs of inelasticity, the desire to make something of their lives and leave childhood behind becoming desperately imperative. This plot is entirely transparent and predictable (will Dante throw over his unpleasant fiance for his simpatica co-worker? Smith stacks the deck cruelly, pitting his own pretty but rail-thin wife against the luscious Rosario Dawson; he also gives Dawson all the cool lines), but it’s handled with terrific sensitivity. The relationships are genuine and relaxed, and it shows Smith’s development as a director that even O’Halloran, who’s been noticeably wooden in prior films, comes off mostly as a normal, even likeable guy here. (His interaction with Dawson is particularly low-key and fun.) Reasonably, we might feel some trepidation at the idea of a Clerks film with character development and a third-act have-it-all-out shouting match, but even here, Smith gently pushes the range of both Anderson and O’Halloran without ever letting them go beyond what they can do. It’s a foolhardy venture, but I think he pulls it off; to me that third act is emotionally convincing in a way that “dramas” hardly ever are. Maybe it’s Jay and Silent Bob’s retarded running commentary that does the trick.

Oh, and I can’t get the Jackson 5’s “ABC” out of my head. You’ll see what I mean.

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