The existence of movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is, I believe, the reason that intelligent life from other planets seem to prefer not visiting here. (I can only conclude, however, that no aliens have seen a Wayans Brothers picture, since the Earth has not been reduced to a cinder.) There is an audience for this movie, I’m sure. I am equally sure I am not that audience.
If you liked Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. It’s pretty much the same movie. And since this one’s poised to be a huge hit, you can look forward to another.
Now, it’s likely to be said that I am just too old to appreciate the comic genius of Will Ferrell — that it’s a generational thing preventing my ability to understand just why watching the unlovely figure of Ferrell run around in his underwear (yet again) is more fun than a cask of capuchins. Maybe so, but since I was equally perplexed by most of the cinematic antics of the original Saturday Night Live escapees, I doubt it has anything to do with age. The idea that Ferrell is the natural heir to Chaplin or the Marx Brothers seems very far afield. Calling him the natural heir to Martin and Lewis might be nearer the mark.
As with Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay’s Anchorman, Talladega Nights is little more than a one-joke premise (“Wouldn’t it be funny if Will played an incredibly stupid NASCAR driver?”) fleshed out to an impossible length (110 minutes) with loosely connected sketch comedy. The setup is the same as Anchorman — Ferrell starts out on top, only to find his place in the world challenged by an interloper. In Anchorman, his newscaster was shot down by the arrival of a female co-host who was better at the job than he was. Here his supremacy on the racetrack is threatened by the arrival of a French Formula One driver (nevermind that there’s only the most tenuous connection between Formula One and NASCAR racing), Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is also an intellectual and gay.
Holy homosexual panic! Could there possibly be a more nightmarish trifecta for such a textbook good ol’ boy as Ricky Bobby — or for that matter a large portion of the film’s supposed target audience? Strangely, this is the area in which Talladega Nights flirts with interesting material and gets close to something like a subversive take on its subject. The material is all there — right up to intimations of inverted sexuality when Ricky’s lifelong best friend, Cal (John C. Reilly), marries Ricky’s gold-digging ex-trophy wife (Leslie Bibb, TV’s Crossing Jordan) — but the film lacks either the wit, the nerve or possibly the consciousness of its own subtext to tackle it.
There are pleasing moments — nearly all involving Sacha Baron Cohen as the threatening Frenchman, who points out that the French gave the world “democracy, existentialism and the menage a trois.” He sips macchiato and reads Camus while driving and wants to kiss Ricky — but the focus of the film is Ferrell doing his stock see-how-funny-I-am schtick comedy.
Also, much like Anchorman, Talladega Nights is hell-bent on making it clear that those responsible for it are smarter and more sophisticated than the caricature characters they ostensibly celebrate — hence the Camus and existentialism references and a truly strange bit involving a discussion of symbolism and ambiguity in the writings of William Faulkner (you have to sit through the credits for this). Similarly, one of the supposed big moments is handled in such a blatant “hey, we’re not really gay” manner that it telegraphs its own homosexual panic. (Without getting into the mechanics of the gag, I’ll simply say that Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott did it much better six years ago in Dude, Where’s My Car?.)
There are scattered moments of amusement, yes, but it’s very hit or miss and way too much of it plays like an under-rehearsed TV skit. I defy anyone to tell the difference between the scene where John C. Reilly and Michael Clarke Duncan attempt to extricate a knife from Ferrell’s leg and the outtakes at the end of the movie. These guys are so entranced with how funny they think they are that they can’t even stay in character. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references and brief comic violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke