A movie that was pitched on one premise and one premise alone: "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver." The check hit the desk with the ink still smouldering, the pen had signed it so fast.
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Will Ferrell stars as Ricky Bobby, the son of a good-hearted girl from North Carolina and a handsome, charming "semi-professional racecar driver and amateur tattoo artist" who also turns out to bail on the young family. Sired by a man who owns a Chevelle and whose birth takes place in the back of one (as he takes the car from over a hundred miles per hour to zero in a very intense braking session on a North Carolina backroad - it would apprear that "nature and nurture" conspired to create a boy whose only desire in life is to "go fast".
The absent father returns for one memorable father-son day in which he shows up smoking (it's alright, darlin, I'm a volunteer fireman) and gives a highly inappropriate speech before getting forcibly ejected from the school. But as he leaves he angrily snarls back at Bobby that unlike everyone around him who is a loser, he is a winner. And that "if you aren't first, you're last". Childhood friend Cal Naughton tries to be there for his troubled friend, and the two end up in a pit crew for a local racing team.
The team is in last place, has the barest of sponsors, and is so disheartened that the driver actually walks away from a tire change to get a sandwich and make a few phone calls. When the pit boss asks if anyone else wants to suit up and go fast, Ricky volunteers. His innate talents light up the track, and soon him and Naughton (who he talks the team owner into letting drive as well) take the #1 and #2 positions in most races with a slingshot move called the "Shake and Bake". Bobby marries a cute girl with great breasts ("please be 18") who flashes him from the crowd, and the only downside from the fame, money and smokin' hot wife is that the two tickets he leaves to every race for his father in the vain hope that he'll show up never go claimed.
Ricky rapidly becomes a macho, arrogant jerk who takes his friends for granted. Insulting the masculiity of the team owner's son, making obscene gestures to other drivers, and not intervening when his two sons "Walker" and "Texas Ranger" abuse his father in law - he's even gauche enough to make out with his wife in a pile of pizza boxes while his family are having dinner (Cal Naughton politely holds her hair out of the way). Naughton would like to win once in a while (reversing who does what in the Shake and Bake) and clearly has a thing for Ricky Bobby's wife. And yet, cocooned in fame and fortune, he doesn't see that pride comes before a fall.
Enter slim-cigarette smoking, effeminate suit-wearing Jean Girard, "ze greytest dry-a-veurrr in ze weeerld" from "Formula UN." Having changed the jukebox to play jazz, the crowd is confused by the newcomer and they're not quite sure why he's talking "funny". For the record, Girard is played by Sasha Baron-Cohen of Borat fame, and the two comedic geniuses play perfectly off each other. Bobby responds to Girard's challenge with a punch, and through a combination of stupid macho pride and circumstance ("now you are mocking me") Girard breaks Bobby's arm. The appearance of Girard's husband also complicates matters for the assembled redneck crowd. When Naughton goes for a taser, the new team owner, the now late Dunnit's son (who Ricky Bobby had abused all these years) pulls a gun and stops the fight. Because Girard and Bobby are team-mates. Or would be, if Bobby could actually drive.
The descent is pretty rapid. Girard, whose pit crew includes Nobel winning scientists, is actually a phenomenal driver and beats Ricky Bobby's track record. Enraged, Bobby cuts off his own cast and takes to the track, having ALSO made the bad decision to plaster another NASCAR label over his own windshield. The combination of poor visibilty, injury and Girard's superior driving skill results in a fantastic crash, and Bobby is hospitalized.
The story is predicatable from here. Bobby cannot drive to the level he formerly did and takes to bizarre running across the track in his underwear - and is therefore fired. He returns home to find Naughton living with his wife, she's already filed for divorce. When he returns home to his mother with his two children, shortly after he loses his driver's license and is reduced to delivering pizza on a bicycle. Naughton calls - not to taunt him, but he's not really that good at this "enemy" thing, hopes Bobby is doing well and wants to know how to work the remote.
Bobby's father shows up as a Yoda to Bobby's Luke, first trying to get him to drive with a wild cougar in the car, getting him to drive blindfolded (into the side of a house) and in a series of other bizarre tests making fun of the usual "kung fu master teaches student" montage. Bobby sets him up with the police as carrying cocaine under the car, and in blind panic to avoid the cops Bobby rediscovers his innate driving skill. (It's noted in the movie that NASCAR actually comes from bootleggers having a contest to see who had the fastest car and best driving skill, used to evade police.)
Having lost everything he had before, and having regained his family (Bobby's mother rehabilitates his two boys while he's in the middle of relearning to drive) Bobby enters a NASCAR race one final time - not driving for money, or for fame, or glory, but simply because that's who he is and the people who stayed with him want to support him in that. His personal assistant, who clearly carried a torch for him for some time, turns out to be an excellent lover and partner. His children are now polite and respectful, and he has a real family now.
Going into the race he meets not only Girard, but also Naughton, who angrily accuses Bobby of abusing their friendship all these years. Bobby would have swung for him for taking his wife and his house, but the new, changed Bobby accepts that everything that's happened is a result of his own faults as a man and simply wishes his friend luck. During the race Naughton is highly conflicted and ultimately ignores his own owner's instructions to ram Bobby and take him out of the race or else be fired. Instead, Naughton clearly motions to Bobby to prepare to be thrown into first by the Shake and Bake, with Bobby accepting the apology. Naughton himself gets rammed by another team member as punishment and the whole field turns into a mass of twisted metal and traded paint. Finally it is Bobby and Girard, who themselves crash. Unable to leave things there, the two men race for the finish line on foot and Bobby wins by a fingertip as they dive for the line. Bobby has "won" from Girard's point of view, and having genuinely been beaten can now retire with his husband to develop a currency for dogs and cats to use, as he has always wanted. According to NASCAR however, since the two men left their cars, it is Cal who has finally won a NASCAR race (which hints at having preserved his job).
Cal brings his friend to his side and asks if Shake and Bake can get together again. "No, never again" says Bobby, which a dejected Naughton doesn't understand at first. "The Magic Man" he says, pointing to Naughton's new nickname, and "El Diablo". Naughton isn't quite sure what that is, Bobby explains that it's something to do with a chicken.
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This is actually a terrific movie. It's goofily funny with a fantastic all-star cast. The combination of Ferell and Baron-Cohen is just unbelievably gonzo, the script works even without the jokes as a touching story of victory and loss, redemption, the importance of family and friendship and a clear moral about not bullying anyone or taking them for granted. Or judging someone until one takes the time to see their benefits and their flaws.
The movie has a lot of killer lines that get broken out in conversation, such as "That just happened", starting a real or pretend grace at meals with "Dear Lord Baby Jesus", including bizarre tangents about "eight pound, six ounce baby Jesus" and being in a crib with Baby Einstein and such - and of course, the ever-repeated "Shake! and Bake!"
The out-takes shown in the credits goes to show just how much fun they had making the movie, complete with entire sequences where nobody could hold a straight face. Apparently the NASCAR crowds in attendance for scenes filmed at the track were genuine NASCAR crowds who had a blast, loved the whole thing and didn't need prompting to cheer Bobby and Naughton, and boo Girard, even though the only clue they had about Girard's character was that he was sponsored by Perrier.
It's a cult hit and one that's so well done and so timelessly perfect that there won't be a sequel. Which is good, because the movie's story arc is near flawless as-is.