Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Movie Review
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of
Ricky Bobby is the sort of cheerfully asinine
comedy that twists your arm until you submit.
So, to Will Ferrell -- clown, freak, bully --
I scream, ``Uncle!” Ferrell co-wrote ``Talladega
Nights” with the director Adam McKay. They also
made 2003’s TV news farce ``Anchorman: The Legend
of Ron Burgundy” together, and that arbitrarily
amusing escapade was a warm-up for the more
confident shenanigans they inflict on us here.
The movie isn’t a mean-spirited rag on NASCAR
or its fans, though. It’s a goof on the macho
corniness of the racing movie.
Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a witless
pit crewman who becomes a NASCAR superstar after
his driver goes cuckoo. Fame does not improve
Ricky’s intelligence -- he and his trashy Dixie-chick
wife (Leslie Bibb) name their sons Walker and
Texas Ranger in praise of the old Chuck Norris
show -- but it does afford the movie a chance
to build a number of daffy sequences around
the excesses the sport affords him.
The first 20 minutes come on fast
and easy, whisking us from Ricky’s speed-obsessed
childhood to his sudden celebrity. There’s the
marriage, a few hilarious TV spots, fake interviews,
a Motley Crüe song, and the tickling sight of
Ricky driving a Wonder Bread-sponsored car.
But the movie’s been made with a surprisingly
risky rhythm: That introductory blitz of jokes
and gags settles into a single long scene at
the Bobby family dinner table. Ricky tells us
the meal has been sponsored by a certain energy
drink, then he blesses the food, and an argument
breaks out over which version of Jesus is better.
That meal goes on for several
minutes more, and it underscores the noblest
thing about ``Talladega Nights”: that Ferrell
and McKay are determined to see a scene through
to its most unnatural conclusion. The dinner,
with the tacky wife trying to maintain some
order and the young’ns cussing poor grandpa,
turns into a surreal set piece. Not much later,
there is another at the bar where Ricky and
his red-blooded American pals’ country-loving
good time is ruined by the jazz an accented
stranger (Sacha Baron Cohen) plays on the jukebox.
His name is Jean Girard. He’s
gay, he’s French, and he’s just been hired to
race by the same family that owns Ricky’s team.
He’s capable of reading Camus and sipping wine
while he drives, and his boyfriend is a vision
of pomposity played by Andy Richter. The kneejerk
homophobia that would usually take over a dude
comedy when someone like Jean arrives doesn’t
really surface. I’m thinking about the nosedives
``Wedding Crashers” took whenever its one gay
character popped into view.
``Talladega Nights” is too slaphappy
to annoy anybody, however. Cohen, who’s better
known to HBOsubscribers as Ali G, gives Girard
so many delightful curlicues (for one thing,
his accent is not French; it’s Peter Sellers)
that the joke he makes of the character has
numerous punch lines. One of the funniest shots
in the movie is a close-up of Ferrell and Cohen
in a nose-tonose shout-down. You can see both
men fighting the urge not to break character
and collapse into hysterics.
The movie’s generosity extends
to nearly the whole cast. John C. Reilly plays
Ricky’s vividly dumb best friend, and while
he’s been funny before, I’ve never hurt laughing
at him as I did here. Gary Cole and the unsung
Jane Lynch have plum parts as Ricky’s parents.
Molly Shannon is tart in her few scenes, which,
like a lot of moments in ``Talladega Nights,”
are glorified outtakes. Even Houston Tumlin
and Grayson Russell, the two hellions playing
Walker and Texas Ranger, are a blast.
Best of all is Amy Adams, that
Oscar-nominee from ``Junebug,” who here plays
Ricky’s drab assistant. She spends the movie
in thankless group shots, then in one outrageous
moment that feels ripped from a speech Nicole
Kidman gave Tom Cruise in ``Days of Thunder,”
she comes to magic, comic life.
Naturally, the fleet, effortless
marvels of the first 60 or so minutes prove
unsustainable. After Ricky has a career-altering
accident, the film becomes a lower-energy movie-of-the-week
riff. This patch does produce one stellar hospital
scene between Ferrell and Michael Clarke Duncan,
as Ricky’s pit-crew chief. Ferrell thinks he’s
paralyzed, Duncan tries to talk some sense into
him, and the two men wind up tearfully screaming
at each other in high Oscar-clip fashion.
A nonsense encounter like that
is what makes ``Talladega Nights” so appealing.
Not only is it the first comedy since ``The
40-Year-Old Virgin” that’s been made with an
improvisatory spirit and a degree of respect
for an audience, it’s also bravely poised on
the fine edge between hilarity and disaster.
Much of the credit belongs to Ferrell, who sets
the picture’s tone and is smart enough to surround
himself with people who can follow his lead.
In the wrong hands (Nora Ephron’s
or Woody Allen’s), Ferrell looks foolish because
the directors are too in awe of his gangbusters
style -- that or his status as a box-office
lure. McKay, who was also a writer on ``Saturday
Night Live,” seems to have Ferrell’s wild nature
mostly under control. This is not to say the
comedian doesn’t go crazy. We are treated to
the riotous, almost David Lynchian moment in
which Ferrell runs around a motorway in his
undies screaming that he’s on fire. He’s not.
Actually, come to think of it: He is.