×

How ‘Talladega Nights,’ ‘Stepbrothers’ Paved the Way for ‘The Big Short’

When Adam McKay hoisted his adapted screenplay Oscar back in February for “The Big Short,” his excoriating dissection of Wall Street’s deft and destructive thuggery, that sound you heard was the collective “WTF” of dozens of top film critics and pundits who’d spent the entire awards season writing a variation of the “I never saw this coming” mea culpa/apologia.

To justify their myopia, the press generally cited “Step Brothers” (2008) as the ultimate Other Side of Paradise credit on McKay’s resume, neatly evading their own misreadings of McKay’s — and his co-conspirator in Gary Sanchez Prods., Will Ferrell’s — many other overtly and hilariously political ruminations on America’s cultural fissures, fixations and florid foibles.

They should be red-faced, especially since no less an authority than America’s preeminent docu-politico Michael Moore knew what they were up to a decade ago. “The day after ‘Talladega Nights’ opened,” recalls McKay of his and Ferrell’s 2006 comedy, “Moore called me and said, ‘You son of a bitch, you just made the most subversive movie in the country, and no one knows it.’”

Perhaps it’s because Ferrell and McKay have been so good at their primary gig — getting laughs and entertaining — that the chuckles have consistently upstaged the tough insights.

Popular on Variety

But now the gato is out of the bag and Gary Sanchez Prods. has won a fresh appreciation for its often corrosive satiric explorations of America, its families, its heroes and its sometimes destructive values and myths.

“If you’re not first, you’re last,” said Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) in “Talladega,” and for those paying attention, America’s win-at-all-costs ethos had found its perfect and perfectly absurd mantra.

And for everyone else? “The fact that that line gets quoted sincerely all the time is really horrifying,” says McKay, allowing himself a laugh at the preposterousness of the misguided appropriation.

But “Talladega” was no one-off, having been preceded by “Anchorman” (2004), which gently spoofed the localized and lobotomized spoonfeeding of hard news into soft, televisable bits, while “Anchorman 2” (2013) upped the ante, helpfully explaining how Fox News’ brand of flag-waving, scapegoating, patriotic puppy-hugging and right-winging was invented in 1979 by a pompous polyester tube boob named Ron Burgundy.

Lest anyone imagine that the subtext is in the eye of the beholder, as opposed to the creators, McKay recalls, “That was the central idea behind it and it was the reason we did the sequel.” Ferrell concurs, explaining, “Adam really kept saying, ‘They’re there for the invention of cable news.’”

And lest you wonder where McKay’s head was at on that particular development in our history, he ruefully notes, “ I love that they’re the ones who destroyed America.”

“The Campaign” (2012) portrayed American politics as commedia dell’arte and kept our attention focused on the empty buffoons hogging the center stage, while the real business of running America was handled by the Koch brothers-like boys in the backroom.

The Tony-nommed Broadway show “You’re Welcome America — A Final Night With George W. Bush” (2009) grappled with a real-life political enigma who seemed, by the time Ferrell was done with him, to be as perfectly constructed an unholy fool as a character from a Jerzy Kosinski novel.

Having politicized the big screen and the stage, it’s no surprise that the Sanchez shingle’s groundbreaking online comedy site, “Funny or Die,” is political as hell. It’s currently helping a beTrumped and bewildered nation grapple with that stranger than fiction phenomenon.

Normally, anyone spending as much time stirring up the populace and lampooning our national mores as the Gary Sanchez duo do, would be better known for their barbed analyses, but their films do tend to blend scathing portraits of delusional overachievers with gleefully slapstick humor.

“Talladega” whipsaws between big laughs from inherently daft and thoroughly unselfconscious Middle America religious rituals to Ricky Bobby’s panic attacks sans pants.

Which brings us back to “Step Brothers.”

If you look closely, you can find the direct line from the titular characters, who are essentially infantilized narcissists, to the “Big Short” sharpies and co-conspirators who drove the global economy off a cliff. After decades of reality TV expounding the virtues of quick easy fame and instant wealth, the “Step Brothers” are America’s children and “Big Short’s”  Wall Street is the ultimate game show.

Perhaps the secret of the success of the Sanchez canon is their sincere belief in core values that consumerism can’t replace. Lucy Bobby (Jane Lynch) is outraged by the callous stupidity of her grandkids until she can stand it no more and “Granny Love” comes down like the wrath of God.

Ricky Bobby must literally pass through the flames before he hits the other side of his demented quest for empty trophies garnered from driving faster than the next guy.

But the audience never stops loving Ricky, because they never stop relating to him. Driving fast feels good and winning beats losing. His innocent journey through American excess is a now universal fantasy and it makes audiences feel good to know that the Winner’s Circle is no fun without a few things money can’t buy: true friends, family, integrity.

Now we’ve revealed their political chicanery, it should be OK to reveal that beneath the “subversion” that fills Moore with glee, there’s a foundation of empathy for everyone out there trying to make sense of an increasingly absurd world that seems to have an endless supply of ways to break our spirits.

So here’s a big “gracias” to the boys from Sanchez for relieving the pain and tickling the funny bones, while also honoring our intelligence by acknowledging, yes, we are all getting screwed and only one percent of us are well-paid for the experience.

More Film

  • Aviron Pictures Hit With Layoffs

    Aviron Pictures Hit With Layoffs, Joel Kinnaman Action Movie 'The Informer' in Limbo

    Fledgling distributor Aviron Pictures has been hit with a significant staff reduction less than a month after the removal of top executive WIlliam Sadleir, numerous insiders told Variety.  Almost half of a staff of 30 were dismissed last week, amid wide rumors that the company’s deep-pocketed financier Black Rock has defunded the outfit entirely, sources [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Bill Clinton

    Harvey Weinstein's Lawyer Seeks Mistrial When D.A. Refers to Bill Clinton Friendship

    Harvey Weinstein was associated with the Clintons for years, socially and as a generous donor to both of their political campaigns. And according to prosecutors in Weinstein’s criminal trial, he bragged about his friendship with the former president to women he allegedly sexually assaulted, in an effort to intimidate them. During opening statements on Wednesday, [...]

  • Channing Tatum

    Channing Tatum to Star in 'Bob the Musical' Comedy for Disney

    Channing Tatum is attached to star in and produce “Bob the Musical” for Disney — a project that’s been in development for more than a decade. Tatum will produce through his company, Free Association, and partners Reid Carolin and Peter Kiernan. Tripp Vinson and Chris Bender are also attached to produce. No director is currently [...]

  • John Henry

    'John Henry': Film Review

    Terry Crews’ John Henry is a man of few words. “John Henry,” the folklore-cribbing, violent thriller (opening theatrically and available on demand) about a former gang member who must face his demons when two young immigrants require his help, feels like it wants to say a lot. But what exactly? Utilizing horror-movie gestures and ladling [...]

  • Matt Damon SNL

    Matt Damon to Star in NYPD Thriller 'The Force'

    Matt Damon has come on board to star in “The Force” with James Mangold directing for Disney’s 20th Century Studios. Mangold, who directed Damon in “Ford v. Ferrari,” has been developing the Don Winslow bestseller since 2017. “The Force” centers on corrupt NYPD officers with Damon attached to play detective Denny Malone, who runs an [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein female juror

    Novelist Who Wrote About Predatory Men Stays on Harvey Weinstein Jury

    A novelist who has an upcoming book about predatory older men in New York will remain on the Harvey Weinstein jury, despite vociferous objections from the defense. Juror #11 showed up to opening statements on Wednesday, and sat through the full day of trial. Weinstein’s defense had argued last Friday that she should be removed [...]

  • Ride Like A Girl

    Australia Box Office Drops 2% in 2019

    Cinema box office in Australia dipped by 2% in 2019 to an annual total of A$1.23 billion, or $841 million, according to data from the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia. That was the country’s third highest figure in local currency terms, but it also shows the theatrical industry to be rangebound since 2015. Australian-made [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content