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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby   B

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Cast: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Michael Clarke Duncan, Leslie Bibb, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams.

Review by Rob Vaux

As you are no doubt aware, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby stars Will Ferrell, who many people consider tremendously funny. I find his humor more sporadic than hysterical, but he's hit the target enough times to give a movie like this at least modest potential. Thankfully, Talladega Nights fulfills it with admirable professionalism, delivering another idiot man-child for Ferrell to inhabit while broadly skewering the admittedly easy target of NASCAR culture. Its trump card, however, comes not just in the star, but in the very funny supporting cast chosen to back him up: people you've likely seen before but whose names don't register on the National Fame Barometer. Names like Gary Cole, Office Space's Boss from Hell, who rocks the house as Ferrell's shiftless dad. Or Jane Lynch -- last seen freaking out Steve Carell with details of her deflowering in The 40-Year-Old Virgin -- as Ferrell's cheerfully mordant mother. There's John C. Reilly slam-dunking another doofus best friend, Molly Shannon getting her groove on as an alcoholic trophy wife, and even Michael Clarke Duncan raising more than his share of unexpected snickers. That the film wastes the wonderful Amy Adams is less a case of ignoring her brilliance than simply lacking the time to let her strut. With such an army behind him, Ferrell need only find the right tone and step up to the plate. If he misses, they're still going to knock it out of the park.

And that's all that matters for movies like Talladega Nights. Are we laughing? Yes? Then throw away the checklist, because our money is officially well spent. Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay find fertile ground in the Red State tackiness of professional racing, but like all good satirists, they temper their jabs with heartfelt affection. Their fulcrum is Ferrell's Ricky Bobby, stunningly dim king of the NASCAR circuit whose win-at-all-costs philosophy consumes every inch of his distressingly limited brain space. Like Anchorman's Ron Burgundy, he lives in a fantasyland of insecure male adolescence, complete with a toadying pal (Reilly) happy to always come in second and a bling-laden missus (Leslie Bibb, another standout) who seems cloned from Jessica Simpson's hair extensions. Trouble enters his paradise with the arrival of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, another standout), who embodies the unholy trifecta reviled by all of Bobby's ilk: he's French, he's intellectual, and he's very very gay. Even worse, he's a better racer than Bobby, and a few easy humiliations soon reduce Ferrell's Champion Good Ole Boy to a blubbering wreck. It will take the love of a patient woman (Adams), a newfound sense of humility, and a few manly-man lessons involving blindfolds and cranky mountain lions to get him back into the winner's circle.

The faux machismo of Bobby's lifestyle makes a tasty satirical snack as Farrell and McKay again look to deflate the hubristic preening that passes for male emotional development in our society. Gauche materialism, xenophobia, and the "second place is the first loser" mentality of Ugly America take it on the chin as well, giving Talladega Nights a timely feel even as it apes Anchorman's winning formula. Obvious swipes are the order of the day, but McKay still knows how to invest them with insight and wit, and he never takes the buffoonery for granted. The second half runs low on gas, as the formulaic plot sputters a bit and the guffaws of the first hour slowly diminish to quieter chuckles, but even when it stumbles, someone amid the standout ensemble is always ready to pick up the slack.

And for all of its barbs, it retains a core of sweetness at its heart. Talladega Nights mocks NASCAR, to be sure, but it never shortchanges the excitement and atmosphere that have made the circuit such a phenomenon. McKay keeps the racing scenes pumped full of adrenaline, and though he spares nothing in assaulting the zeitgeist surrounding them, he never questions why people should love NASCAR, or devalues the immense skills displayed by Bobby's (hopefully brighter) real-world counterparts. Adam Sandler's films leave a bad taste in the mouth because they have fundamentally nasty souls -- an ugly, bullying mentality that displays open contempt for their chosen targets. Talladega Nights, on the other hand, loves what it ridicules, even at its most chiding. For all his stupidity and arrogance, and for all the appalling shortcomings of the bubble he inhabits, Ricky Bobby is basically a decent guy underneath. Talladega Nights always keeps that gentleness in mind, even as it refuses to let him off the hook for all of his dipshit idiocy. Its laughs are broad, but consistent, and its creators adore the subject enough to find all the proper tickle spots. Talladega Nights requires nothing more in order to cruise happily across the finish line.

Review published 08.04.2006.

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