When it comes to Will Ferrell, there are “Will Ferrell Movies” and there are “Movies That Will Ferrell Appears In.” Let me explain. “Will Ferrell Movies” are the ones where he creates an indelible character in a comedy that perfectly showcases his unique brand of humor. Elf and Old School are “Will Ferrell Movies.” So is Anchorman. “Movies That Will Ferrell Appears In” are the ones where he’s more of a hired hand, trying to incorporate his humor into someone else’s vision. They include Bewitched, The Producers, and Kicking and Screaming. The comedian’s latest - Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby - is not only a “Will Ferrell Movie,” it is also a prime example of one.
Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a NASCAR driver who developed a need for speed at a young age. His ne’er-do-well father Reese (Gary Cole) taught him how good it feels to go fast and instilled one simple piece of advice: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” That motto has served Ricky well. He’s not only the top driver on the circuit, but he also lives in a big mansion, has a hot blonde trophy wife named Carley (Leslie Bibb), and is father to two precocious boys, Walker and Texas Ranger. Ricky’s best friend is his teammate, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly), who is gracious (or stupid) enough to help block out other cars so Ricky can always win.
One day, Ricky’s world suddenly comes crashing down. A snooty gay French racer named Jean Girard (Sasha Baron Cohen) joins the team, determined to replace Ricky in the winner’s circle. Around the same time, Ricky’s Wonder Bread car crashes. Although he has no physical damage, the psychological damage is astounding: Ricky wrongly believes he caught on fire and has become paralyzed. Despite the efforts of his friends and loved ones, he refuses to accept the fact that he’s perfectly fine. A period of depression sets in before Reese makes a return appearance to inspire him to get behind the wheel and face down Girard one more time.
Will Ferrell has deservedly gained a reputation for being completely committed to his comedy. The guy never winks at the camera, never wimps out on a joke, never fails to give anything less than 100%. If he fails, he fails. On the other hand, if he succeeds, it’s guaranteed comedy gold. Ferrell is also the best there is when it comes to playing characters who are clueless/egotistical/insane or some combination thereof. He does this while still making them likeable. In Ricky Bobby, he has found another great character of this variety. With his Southern accent, occasional cluelessness, and obsession with driving fast, the character is fertile ground for humor in Ferrell’s capable hands.
The supporting cast is just as good. Like the star, they have to play it completely straight, never indicating that they know the material is funny. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Oscar nominee Amy Adams (Junebug) plays Ricky’s mousy assistant, who undergoes a transformation late in the film. There is a scene where she gives Ricky a big, inspiring speech that, if you listen carefully, gets more and more absurd as it goes on. But she has to believe it, and Adams continually elevates her voice and her mannerisms. Just when we think she can’t get any more intense, she does. Now, if you play that scene knowing its potential for humor, it all falls apart. Since Adams plays it with great sincerity, the speech is hilarious.
All the actors get this basic idea. John C. Reilly is a consummate actor who shows a natural talent for goofy comedy here. (I am reminded of Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber. It takes a really good actor to play this humor the right way.) He and Ferrell have terrific chemistry, making it easy to believe that Ricky and Cal are buddies – even with Cal lusting after Ricky’s wife. Leslie Bibb is very good as that gold-digging wife, and Michael Clarke Duncan is nicely cast as the pit crew leader. As a sleazy, deadbeat father, you don’t get any better than Gary Cole, who shows us Reese’s heart beneath all the boozin’ and cruisin’. Last, but not least, is the great Sasha Baron Cohen, best known for his alter egos Ali G and Borat. He avoids making Girard a generic villain by giving him such a wacky, unique personality.
I’m no fan of NASCAR – in fact, I just plain don’t get it - but I do like comedy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a very, very funny one. People who love NASCAR will probably like it just as much as those of us who don’t. The laughs are almost non-stop, and the screenplay (by Ferrell and Anchorman co-writer/director Adam McKay) is filled with quotable lines that Ferrell fanatics will be saying to friends, family members, and co-workers for months (years?) to come.
There is real spirit and energy in this movie. As in Anchorman, the film isn’t afraid to go off on strange little tangents. You never know what you’re going to see or hear from minute to minute. Sometimes you get a little bit of off-color humor, such as Girard’s occasional announcements of his own arousal. Then there are moments of sharply observed parody of the whole NASCAR phenomenon. (Old Spice as Cal’s sponsor? Brilliant!) There is also some great observational humor, like a hysterical dinner scene in which Ricky and his family argue about whether it’s more appropriate to pray to baby Jesus or adult Jesus when saying grace. Other times, the humor is just wonderfully flat-out wacko, like the instance where Ricky (believing he’s on fire) runs around in his underwear screaming for Tom Cruise to work his Scientology voodoo to put it out. I also like the part where Reese makes Ricky wrestle with a cougar to learn bravery. The difference is that Talladega Nights has a stronger central story than Anchorman did, and all of the various forms of comedy serve that story.
I like Will Ferrell, regardless of whether he’s in a “Will Ferrell Movie” or simply a “Movie That Will Ferrell Appears In.” But I like the “Will Ferrell Movies” the best. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby finds the star in top form and in the right big-screen vehicle, delivering one of the funniest movies of the year.
( 1/2 out of four)
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references and brief comic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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