For the legions of NASCAR fans out there, it’s been a long, long road since Days of Thunder. Despite having a huge fan base, racecar driving has made barely a blip on the big screen (unless you are particularly fond of the Sylvester Stallone bomb, Driven). Now, more than a decade and a half after Tom Cruise rehashed Top Gun on the racetrack, we have Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, a high-profile NASCAR comedy starring everyone’s favorite dolt, Will Ferrell. The film comes from the team that brought you Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and the construction of the title isn’t the only similarity between the two films. Both deal with an egotistical, socially moronic man whose success in his field is compromised when a newcomer arrives on the scene and dethrones him.
The moron in this scenario is the titular Ricky Bobby (Ferrell), a southern boy of extremely limited intellectual capacity who devotes his whole life to “drivin’ fast.” Paired with his best buddy and perpetual runner-up, Cal (John C. Reilly), Ricky becomes a NASCAR superstar and an insufferable egomaniac. He marries a vapid babe (Leslie Bibb), ignores his hardworking assistant (Amy Adams) and irks his corporate-weenie boss (Greg Germann). The tables are turned, however, with the arrival of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), an ace driver who steals Ricky Bobby’s glory.
Probably the funniest part of Talladega Nights is the end-credit sequence, featuring numerous hilarious outtakes that show the actors cracking themselves and each other up as the try to come up with increasingly ridiculous lines. The genuine humor in these outtakes highlights everything that’s good and bad about this kind of film. Like Anchorman, there is a lot of improvised dialogue, some of which produces hysterical results (Ricky’s product-placement and commercials are priceless). Conversely, many scenes wander and don’t know when to end, going off on weird tangents that peter out and lack a real comic payoff. Awkwardness and randomness can be very funny (see Family Guy if you don’t believe me), but it can’t mask a poorly structured story that leaves its actors in a kind of comic quicksand that pulls them down faster the harder they fight.
Ferrell is a funny guy, there’s no question about that, but his stupid-odd humor is already starting to feel stale. Ironically, his most appealing performance (and his most successful film) was Elf, which triumphed on his sincerity—a trait he eschews in these broader comedies. In some ways, he’s too inherently likeable to be completely believable as a jerk, and he’s too inherently geeky to be believable as a superstar, even if he gets knocked off of his pedestal early on. The rest of the cast might be described as the Valley of the Lost Academy Award Nominees. John C. Reilly (who ironically also appeared in Thunder) is one of the best working character actors. He works hard to make his part work, but there isn’t much there to begin with. Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is adrift in his barely-there role (though his Donna Summer impression during the end credits is worth the price of admission). Amy Adams, so adorably funny in Junebug, flounders in a throwaway secondary part that shows none of her considerable personality.
You will laugh out loud at some of Talladega Nights, and maybe that’s all that the movie set out to do. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by the film’s indulgences and slapped-together feel. Furthermore, the homophobic humor that appears briefly in Wedding Crashers and 40 Year-Old Virgin plays a much bigger part in the proceedings. I find this a distressing trend that says something truly insulting about the male audience—that we’ll only see a comedy if it has boob shots, gay jokes and bathroom humor. I love lowbrow humor; I even love films that wear their stupidity on their sleeves (e.g. The Naked Gun films). In the end, I just wished Talladega Nights had been smarter about being stupid.
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