Talladega Nights

Though uneven in its comedic moments and laugh quotient, there's still fun to be had in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby,” the new Will Ferrell vehicle, which brings the joyously spirited humor and colorful persona so missed in the Tom Cruise starrer, “Days of Thunder,” the last big Hollywood picture about car racing (see below).

Always rambunctious (which is good), and occasionally too generic (which is not), “Talladega Nights” flaunts enough inspired Ferrell jokey anecodtes to compensate for the surprisingly too mild satire of the NASCAR subculture. Nonetheless, as a sendup of sports movies, the picture maintains an almost consistently pleasant parodic mood.

“Talladega Nights” benefits from a joyous spirit and giddy mood, largely appealing secondary performers (who have more to do here than in previous Ferrell comedies) and particularly authentic settings of NASCAR, which was involved in the project from the beginning (see interview with McKay).

Going for broad crowd appeal, “Talladega Nights” cashes in on Ferrell's charm and strengths (his skill at playing buffoonish egomaniacs), while minimizing his weaknesses, even though making two films a year might reach the point of overexposure and repetition. Joyous tone, if also necessarily noisy, and PG-13 rating should help the comedy reach mid-range size of audiences.

As star/co-writer/executive producer, Ferrell is determined to take an active part in shaping his career, much like his colleagues Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughn. After two back-to-back failures (Woody Allen's “Melinda and Melinda” and Nora Ephron's inept remake of “Bewitched”) and one mediocre picture, “Kicking and Screaming,” with Duvall and a bunch of kids, Ferrell understandably plays it safe, or safer, especially that the budget is around $80 million, a high tag price for such a film; last summer, both “Wedding Crashers” and “40-Year-Old-Virgin” cost less.

As is often the case of send-up comedies, once the premise is established and the eccentric characters introduced, “Taladega Nights” begins to lose its steam and sag, overextending its welcome by at least 10 minutes. Even so, reteaming with Adam Mckay, who also made “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” Ferrell shows genuine love for the tracks, and affection for the speed, danger, and persona involved in this most particular milieu.

And the story

“Talladega Nights” concerns a dreamer who can only accept being Numero Uno. Like his absent father, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole), who left the family to pursue his racing dreams, Ricky has always dreamed of driving fast.

Early on, Rickys mother, Lucy Bobby (Jane Lynch) worries that her boy is also destined to end up as a professional daredevil on wheels. The film begins with the mythic birth of North Carolinian Ricky, who comes into this world in the backseat of a speeding Chevelle.

Ricky first enters the racing arena as a jackman for slovenly indifferent driver Terry Cheveaux (played by director Adam McKay). He accidentally gets his big break behind the wheel, when Cheveaux makes an unscheduled pit stop during a race to gorge on a chicken sandwich. Ricky jumps into the car, and so begins the ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Ricky quickly becomes one of NASCARs top stars, supported by his pit boys: The large crew chief Lucius Washington (Michael Clarke Duncan), a trio of lovably moronic but loyal crew members, Herschell (David Koechner), Kyle (Ian Roberts) and Glenn (Jack McBrayer), as well as racing partner and boyhood friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly). They are all part of the Dennit Racing team, headed by the wealthy Dennit Senior (Pat Hingle) and his petulant son, Dennit Junior (Greg Germann), whose jealousy of Ricky increases with every victory.

Rickys win at all costs approach has made him a national hero, but he quickly realizes that, in racing as in life, you have to watch out for the curves. A crash sends Ricky to the hospital, after which he loses his nerve and falls on hard times. When his career and his wife are taken over by his friend Cal, Ricky turns his back on racing and takes his sons back to his small hometown to live with his mother. As if Ricky is not high-maintenance enough, his has to contend with and tame his two ornery sons (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell).

But Ricky just isnt cut out for the slow life away from the racetrack, and soon he hits rock bottom. For help, his mother reluctantly turns to his estranged father, who still has some old racing tricks to assist Ricky conquer his fear of driving. Ricky will do anything to find a way back to the top, no matter how many speed bumps life throws his way.

As noted, unlike “Anchorman,” here the supporting cast feels more involved. As Rickys best friend, John C. Reilly shows facility in handling the dopey-sidekick role. Reilly, an actor better known for his dramatic intensity, makes a good comic foil for Ferrell. The two work well off one another. Just watch how Cal and Ricky look each other straight in the eyes or trade their motto, “Shake and Bake.” I particularly like the scene in which Cal can't understand why Ricky doesn't want to be his friend after Mrs. Bobby (Leslie Bibb) dumps her husband for the still-employed Cal.

But its Baron Cohen (better-known as “The Ali G” star and soon to be seen in the hilarious “Borat”), who gives the movie its real kick and big laughs, playing as juicy a villain as they come, a stereotypical French snob who represents everything that the all-American, flag-waving, beer-drinking Ricky has contempt for.

Jean Girard represents the two redneck horrors (Bush and followers should watch out) of being gay and French. Cohen seems to have a lot of fun with the French-bashing and homophobia associated with America's NASCAR. Jean has a taste for jazz, macchiato, and Albert Camus' existential novels, hobbies enjoyed while behind the wheel; he even has a devoted husband (Andy Richter) and hangs out with celebs like Elvis Costello and Mos Def. Coen's heavily-accented English may be a tribute to Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies.

It's therefore too bad he disappears in the films middle reels; he withdraws from the limelight to regain his confidence before the big third-act race.

The picture's most disappointing parts are the women's. Lynch, who was so wonderful in “40-Year-Old Virgin,” is inexplicably restrained in an underwritten role. Ditto for the talented Amy Adams (Oscar-nominated for Junebug), who is wasted on a colorless role.

The large budget seems well spent on exhilarating NASCAR race sequences. The fine, high-energy stunt work adds excitement and tension to the comedy. Shooting at North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, cinematographer Oliver Wood captures in vivid detail the particular ambience of this subculture.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “Talladega” and “Anchorman,” as both are directed by Adam McKay and co-written by McKay and Ferrell. In both pictures, Ferrell plays an arrogant big shot ready for a comeuppance and ultimately in need of redemption and renewal. Ferrell's NASCAR hero may always finish first in the world of stock-car racing, but his new character is hardly quicker on the draw than Ferrell was as newsman Ron Burgundy, a billboard for he-man pomposity and big-guy silliness.

Marked by a loose and generous spirit, both comedies satirize effectively their institutions; in “Anchorman,” its provincial local news. Finally, both rely on an eccentric gallery of secondary characters, with the zaniness spread generously among a colorful supporting cast

Problem is, “Talladega,” like most Ferrell and his cohort's movies, is a sketch-comedy, consisting of uneven bits and set-pieces linked together by an extremely slender plot.
The rise-and-fall-and-rise saga of “Talladega” has its share of sappy and predictable moments. Nonetheless, the inevitable third-act competition brings out the absurd humor and eccentricity of color and persona that were so badly missing from Tony Scott's “Days of Thunder.”

The world of NASCAR racing is a sport that reportedly enjoys increased popularity in the U.S. It's hard to tell if the core fans would like the movie, or whether many neophytes would find it sufficiently accessible and funny for spending two hours in the dark.

Internationally, like most American comedies, “Talladega Nights” is bound to suffer from lack of knowledge and/or interest in NASCAR and from Ferrells lesser status as a bankable star, a problem faced by most noted American comedians.