Title: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Genre: Comedy, Sports
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriters: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen
I want to rebel against Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. My instinctive aversion to it is grounded in the fact that, at the end of the day, this is pandering of the worst order. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have responded to the call of “give me more of that” heard ’round the world after the success of Anchorman and Old School, but they haven’t done anything else. And so Ferrell goes running in circles in his undies, most likely to the delight of hordes of college students everywhere. Advance congratulations are in order, but how depressing for those of us who think Ferrell a talented guy, and hoped to see him make productive use of his success.
Tempering this reaction is the indisputable fact that funny is funny, and Talladega Nights can be funny in a big way. For all my accusations of cynicism, and my continuing objections to Ferrell and McKay’s tendency to make feature-length sketch compilations instead of movies, I must begrudgingly admit to being amused by their brand of hyperactive, improv-based non sequitur humor, and their flair for escalating absurdity several notches higher than one would think wise or possible. This film essentially transplants the Anchorman formula to the ubiquitous world of NASCAR, but the jokes are a little funnier, a little more ridiculous, and why not? What’s to stop them? Anchorman made almost $85 million, and untold sacks of cash in its numerous DVD releases.
The only way this stuff works is if taken to unspeakable heights, so the seemingly complete free reign given to the filmmakers largely works to their advantage. Witness, for example, the hysterical and utterly inexplicable scene concerning Ricky Bobby’s fixation on praying to Baby Jesus, as opposed to regular adult Jesus, or the extended sequence involving psychosomatic paralysis and culminating in the line “We’ll use this knife to pry out the other knife.” How these digressions fit into the storyline is a question better left unasked; if you can’t deal with the sparse narrative and isolated comic set pieces, this is, to put it gently, not the summer film for you. But I can’t deny laughing.
I wonder how long Ferrell can keep this up. As schtick goes, Ferrell’s is more inherently tiresome than that of either of his closest cousins, comedically speaking: Jack Black and Christopher Guest. While the latter two men — the first usually approximating Ferrell’s oblivious, pompous clown and the second having the same fondness for improvised absurdity — have managed to find new angles on what they do with each new project, Ferrell has been doing essentially the same thing since Saturday Night Live days, meeting with nothing but adoration from the masses. While I and some others have started to feel pangs of irritation at the repetition, if nothing else, the love won’t dry up with this release. It gives the masses what they want, in ways that will have them in stitches.
I should mention the supporting cast, which is stronger than in any of Ferrell’s previous films; John C. Reilly, Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Michael Clarke Duncan and Amy Adams all show up in sizable roles. Most of the characters are sacrificed at the altar of the star’s absolute dominance of screen time and the jokes, but a few of the actors get some shots in; Duncan, in particular, has one priceless moment I won’t reveal. It’s good to see that Ferrell at least has the wisdom to surround himself with other talent.
If this review seems oddly non-committal, it’s because I’ve drawn somewhat contradictory conclusions: 1) Talladega Nights is funny; 2) your enjoyment of it depends on your degree of tolerance for, or alternately weariness of the Will Ferrell Show; and 3) I’m growing weary of it myself, but not just yet. That’s the best I can do with the film, which simply either has what you’re looking for, or it does not, or you’re ambivalent in which case go with your gut.