Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) spends his life living by a motto his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole) once told his elementary school class. “If you’re not #1, you’re last”. Working on a NASCAR pit crew with his lifelong buddy, Cal (John C. Reilly), Ricky Bobby takes the opportunity to drive the company car when the driver decides to take a bathroom and lunch break. Considering the team’s car is dead last, Ricky Bobby attracts a lot of attention when he comes in third. Soon, he and Cal are driving on the same team, working together to ensure Ricky Bobby wins every race. Shortly after becoming #1, Ricky Bobby marries Carley (Leslie Bibb), buys an expensive home complete with a driveway filled with every imaginable SUV, and has two sons, Walker (Houston Tomlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell), but can he stay on top forever? Will his dad ever show up to see him race? Will he be able to outrace a French Formula One Driver (Sacha Baron Cohen)?
“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, the latest film from writer/ director Adam McKay and writer/ star Will Ferrell, the team behind “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, is pretty much the same film with the same types of laughs and the same types of problems. Both films tell the story of a larger than life personality surrounded by a cast of eccentrics who live out a strange existence.
Will Ferrell is a funny guy and in “Talladega” he returns to form. “Talledega” isn’t a great film, far from it, but it shows off the comedic talents of the star far better than his previous few efforts, the disastrous “Bewitched” and “Melinda and Melinda”. Ferrell is almost brilliant, in a way; he always comes so close to making us believe he is actually the character he is portraying. As Ricky Bobby, the North Carolina native who becomes a NASCAR champion, he brings earnestness to the role, making us feel for his character and believe he is the uneducated redneck he portrays. When he checks to make sure two tickets have been left at will call for his dad, a ticket vendor explains to his coworker Ricky Bobby always does this and his dad has yet to claim them. There are a couple of these low key, believable moments throughout which help to make his persona all the more real. At the same time, these moments provide a nice counterpoint to Ricky Bobby’s outrageous behavior, making many moments funnier than they have a right to be.
A lot of Ferrell’s films seem to be improvised and “Talladega” follows this formula, adding to the charm of the film. This practice makes the characters seem more interesting because they speak in a more realistic way. Their conversations are filled with pauses, missteps, etc., much like a normal conversation.
But “Talladega” also shares a similar problem with “Anchorman”; the humor is very hit and miss. Part of this is attributed to the improvised nature of the dialogue; the characters often revisit topics and themes they apparently feel are hilarious but only elicit a chuckle or two. A prime example is Ricky Bobby’s mealtime prayers to the “Baby Jesus”. The first time Ferrell does this rift, it is funny and elicits laughter, partially because of the strangeness, but I get the feeling the filmmakers were overcome with hilarity because he does a similar rift at least one more time later in the film.
John C. Reilly plays Cal, Ricky Bobby’s lifelong friend and sidekick. He has a few funny moments playing a dumb, uneducated hick, but he is ultimately the straight man in the film.
Michael Clarke Duncan, Greg Germann, Pat Hingle and others pop up in supporting roles. Molly Shannon has a short, but memorable bit as Germann’s boozing wife. But none of these characters is given the opportunity to make an impact. The story is about Ricky Bobby, so only those who are closest to this character receive any significant screen time.
Gary Cole has some amusing bits as Ricky Bobby’s deadbeat dad who shows up a couple of times in his life. On one occasion, he shows up at Ricky Bobby’s elementary school, just in time for career day, surprising his son. Following the Waffle House manager, Mr. Bobby explains what his life is like and that the class shouldn’t listen to the teacher. He becomes a hero to Ricky’s classmates and then quickly leaves his son’s life again. Later, he returns when Ricky Bobby is having a hard time and tries to help his son get back on track by helping him train. This is a funny sequence involving driving while blindfolded and staring down a cougar in the car.
Sacha Baron Cohen proves to be Ferrell’s equal as Jean Girard, the French Formula One racer who comes to America for the opportunity to compete against Ricky Bobby. From the moment he arrives, speaking in an exaggerated accent, his mouth slowly forming the words in English, his performance is weird, interesting and slightly disarming. It takes a moment to get used to him. realization struck. Many foreign actors use the same technique when they appear in their first American film, Gong Li in “Miami Vice” for example. If Cohen is making a comment on this, it is a brilliant idea. Basically, I think he is playing a French actor playing a French character in his first American film. It works. Very well. Then, when he shows up with Gregory (Andy Richter) and announces Richter is his husband, the role just becomes more weird, unusual and interesting. Unfortunately, most of this is probably lost on a significant portion of the audience.
There were a lot of guys at the screening I attended, with their buddies, sitting with a seat between them, painting a perfect portrait of the intended audience for this film. Guys, NASCAR fans, the like. Yet, the film goes to great lengths to make fun of these same people. Many of these jokes are funny, but they are not as funny as the filmmakers think and they lose some of their impact. We get the point that Ricky Bobby is uneducated, so when he runs down the track after an accident praying to Jesus, ‘that Jewish guy’, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey, its funny. But later, when the family thinks fine dining is eating out at Applebee’s, the joke is wearing thin. When Ricky Bobby reveals the name of his two kids, Walker and Texas Ranger, we laugh, but an ongoing joke where they show nothing but disrespect to their grandfather just doesn’t work. We get the point that Ricky Bobby and all of his friends are rednecks, but by the fifth or sixth joke about this, we realize the filmmakers don’t have a lot to add to these characters.
There was a lot of laughter in the audience. Apparently, the guys in the audience weren’t offended by the jokes. I’d be interested to see how the film plays in the South. I’m sure they’re relating some of the moments to their buddies at work right now. Or maybe tonight, as they are smashing empty beer cans against their heads while watching football, they might spare a moment to tell them about that ‘awesome joke’ they heard.