“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is from the guys who brought you “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and the films have more in common than their similarly composed titles. Both have an arrogant and popular central character who is brought low by fate and forced to change his selfish ways. Both delight in non-sequitur humor and random celebrity cameos. And of course both have Will Ferrell.
Ferrell is on the roster of actors whom you either find funny or you don’t. It has little to do with the material. It’s the delivery, the mannerisms, the overall BEING of the person. In “Talladega Nights,” in which he plays cocky redneck NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, Ferrell’s demeanor is similar to his old George W. Bush impression: Southern, vaguely dumb and swaggeringly self-assured. He looks like a NASCAR man while simultaneously making fun of NASCAR men.
(And yes, NASCAR fans, the point here is to mock you and your sport. Luckily, many of you are dumb enough not to know you’re being made fun of. And if you take offense at that statement, just assume you’re not one of the people included in the word “many.”)
Ricky Bobby goes from zero to hero early in the film, becoming the superstar racer on a team run by the Dennit family. He’s a “winning is everything” kind of guy, with a hot wife (Leslie Bibb), two mouthy sons, and more endorsement deals than he knows what to do with. Even the grace he says over the family’s dinner is sponsored by Powerade.
Ricky’s lifelong best friend Cal Naughton (John C. Reilly) is on the Dennit team, too, always behind Ricky, keeping other racers at bay and the No. 2 spot for himself. He’d like to actually win sometime, but as Ricky points out, if Cal wins, how would Ricky win? You see his dilemma.
Conflict arises in two ways. First, Dennit brings in Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a new teammate and rival for Ricky who is both French and gay, two things a good ol’ boy like Ricky doesn’t like. (Since French-hating is far more acceptable to movie audiences than gay-bashing, Ricky’s reaction to Jean’s homosexuality is befuddlement, not viciousness.) Jean, with his Perrier-sponsored car, intends to unseat Ricky as the reigning NASCAR king.
The other problem is that Ricky wrecks his car during a race and injures himself — not physically so much, but psychologically. His only goal in life has been to go fast, and now going fast terrifies him. Without racing, his life falls apart. His wife leaves him. There is a rift in his friendship with Cal. His sponsors abandon him. What’s a redneck to do?
With free-wheeling direction by Adam McKay and a script by McKay and Ferrell (though improvisation was obviously encouraged, too), the movie is loose and odd and often screamingly funny. Ferrell and McKay are not afraid to spend five minutes on a scene where everyone at the dinner table debates which version of Jesus to pray to. (Ricky prefers the baby Jesus of Christmastime, while his wife likes the grown-up version.) Or to have Ricky’s deadbeat dad (Gary Cole) try to convince Ricky to ride in a car with a cougar. Or to give Ricky psychosomatic paralysis and spend several minutes on his insistence that he can’t walk. The minds of McKay and Ferrell are strange places indeed. Often the fact that it’s several minutes later and the joke is still being stretched out is as funny as the joke itself.
I didn’t find the film quite as funny as “Anchorman,” which I consider one of the best comedies of the past decade. “Anchorman” had a fantastic supporting cast of Steve Carell, David Koechner, Paul Rudd and Christina Applegate, each of them earning laughs separate from Ferrell, who even played the straightman sometimes. “Talladega Nights” has a great cast — Jane Lynch, Michael Clarke Duncan, Molly Shannon and Amy Adams are among those not already mentioned — but no one is nearly as memorable as Ferrell’s “Anchorman” cohorts were, and nearly all the laughs turn out to be his alone. I doubt it’s ego on Ferrell’s part; I think the other characters were simply underwritten.
There are so many gleeful, wantonly absurd moments, though, more than enough to make it one of the best comedies of the summer. There are people who don’t find Will Ferrell funny, I realize, and I’m happy I’m not one of them.
B (1 hr., 45 min.; )