Whether he’s sashaying around in his underwear on “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” or showing off his birthday suit in “Old School,” Will Ferrell just can’t seem to keep his pants on.
But despite the obligatory Ferrell-flailing-in-tighty-whities scene, it’s the funnyman’s full-coverage sponsorship-splattered wardrobe that’s getting all the attention in his new movie, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” The film centers around fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) and recounts, as the tagline says, “The story of a man who could only count to #1.” Bobby and his best friend/wingman Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly) rule the track until their reign is challenged by a flamboyant French driver named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen).
While it’s pretty difficult to steal a scene from Ferrell, the film’s flagrant corporate sponsorships do attract a lot of attention — just like they’re supposed to.
“That’s the name of the game. You gotta have product endorsement out there,” Ferrell deadpanned in character in a promotional video for the film. “I just cut a deal with Meineke shocks for the space above my right butt cheek — I’m gonna get a Meineke tattoo. That’s just the things I’m thinkin’ ahead of.”
Competing in NASCAR races isn’t cheap due to the cost of building, maintaining and fixing cars, so sponsorships financially fuel the sport. The result? All the over-the-top commercialism cultivates fierce brand loyalty among NASCAR’s fanbase of 75 million.
“If you’re a NASCAR fan, you’re likely shopping at Home Depot and drinking Coca-Cola, and you’re supporting all the sponsors in the sport,” said Andrew Giangola, NASCAR’s director of business communications. “And our fans tell us they have that affinity for these sponsors because they appreciate them providing funding that keeps the sport running.”
In “Talladega Nights,” Ricky Bobby swaggers around the track in a racing suit that looks like a Wonder Bread factory exploded onto him. Similarly, Reilly’s outfit makes him resemble an actual stick of Old Spice deodorant. And Cohen’s snooty French driver is clad from head-to-toe in — what else? — a Perrier ensemble.
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But the product placement doesn’t end there: The film also has a great time mocking how drivers are encouraged to name-drop sponsors at every opportunity. One scene features Ricky Bobby freaking out because he thinks — incorrectly — that he’s on fire. Always the professional, Ricky manages to give a shout-out to his sponsors amid his panic attack.
“As he’s on fire and screaming, ’I don’t want to die!’ he’s still plugging his sponsors, which is a big thing in racing — you have to always plug your sponsors,” Ferrell said. “So I was running around going, ’Powerade is the ultimate thirst quencher; I don’t wanna die! Jaclyn Smith line at JCPenney; I don’t wanna die! Bojangles’ Chicken ’N Biscuits; I don’t wanna die!’ Always sponsor.”
The movie also pokes fun at how the racers’ home lives are often saturated by their sponsor relationships.
One scene depicts Ricky Bobby’s family and Cal sitting down to a nice family dinner. Naturally, Ricky and his kids are clothed in Powerade jackets, while Cal has his trusty Old Spice hat perched atop his head. While Ricky Bobby says grace — making sure to thank “baby Jesus” for the bounty of KFC, Domino’s and Taco Bell provisions they’re about to wolf down — the camera pans over the table to reveal Wonder Bread, Coke, Country Crock and various other brands packed onto the table.
It’s a pretty funny joke, and an apt one too: NASCAR is peddling film-related merch like Wonder Bread hats and jackets through its Web site. Plus, Ferrell and Reilly have been plugging the movie and conducting many of their interviews in character, complete with their logo-emblazoned racing garb — the pair even showed up to MTV’s Movie Awards suited up (see “MTV Movie Awards: Will Ferrell Freaks Out; Jessica Simpson Dusts Off Daisy Dukes” ).
But while the film does skewer the relationship between NASCAR and its corporate sponsors, the cast and filmmakers stress that all the joshing is in good fun. So fun, in fact, that Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay seemed to have a field day with some of the fictitious sponsors Ricky Bobby acquires while down on his luck. While winners reap the benefits of a lucrative Wonder Bread sponsorship, losers can apparently always turn to Julio’s Thongs for Men for, um, support.
“Maybe that one wasn’t a good choice, but he’s desperate; he doesn’t have a lot of options,” Ferrell said in an interview for MTV’s “Your Movie Show.” “I don’t know how much money he got from Julio’s thongs. He probably just got a box of thongs.”
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