(PG-13) Three stars
For movie reviewers, the summer blockbuster season ends this week. After Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the only potential blockbuster left is Snakes on a Plane and they’re not even screening that one for the press. Like a kid acutely aware that the new school year is right around the corner, I want to wring every last bit of fun out of the summer blockbuster season before the annual post-summer festival of shitty movies begins.
Accordingly, I went to a preview of the Will Ferrell comedy more than willing to meet the filmmakers halfway. That approach worked out well for me and I suggest you give it a try. Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay, who last teamed up for 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, have crafted a big, goofy take on sports-triumph movies that, for the most part, succeeds. There are some missteps, but there is plenty to enjoy here for those in a forgiving mood.
I realize, of course, that the idea of someone like me encouraging others to not be critical may seem odd, but hey, it’s hot and miserable and at this particular moment, I think that chuckling is healthier than griping.
Talladega Nights chronicles the rise and fall and rise of a tremendously thick racing legend. Born in the back seat of a speeding car, Ricky Bobby was destined for redneck glory. Working on a pit crew with Cal (John C. Reilly, in another dandy performance), his best friend since childhood, Ricky gets his chance to show his stuff when a jaded driver (played by director McKay) decides to take a break during the race. Ricky steps in for the AWOL racer, wins the competition and a star is born.
Will Ferrell has a gift for creating dense characters that are supremely self-assured and Ricky Bobby is one of his finest. Just before deserting his family, Ricky’s father Reese (Gary Cole) told him, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” The kid took that little nugget and ran with it. As an adult, Ricky is a sweet, swaggering, clueless star. The equally dim Cal continues to stay at his side, now as a driver who lives to support his friend. In moments of triumph, the two men frequently shout their motto, “Shake and Bake,” which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever.
Ricky’s perfect world also includes his rockin’ wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), two hell-raising young sons (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell) and his high-spirited mom (Jane Lynch), along with his talented crew chief (Michael Clarke Duncan) and devoted personal assistant (Amy Adams, wasted here except for one speech towards the end of the movie).
The first third of Talladega Nights chugs along nicely — lots of small and medium laughs and a few big ones — and then the villain arrives. On paper, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G) sounds like a hilarious nemesis for good ole boy Ricky Bobby. He’s a Formula One racer. He’s French. And he’s gay, with a devoted husband (Andy Richter) in tow. He’s everything that makes a redneck feel afraid and angry.
But he isn’t funny enough. At the screening I attended, the theater got a lot quieter whenever Jean Girard appeared. Perhaps it’s the overly deliberate performance by Cohen. Or perhaps a significant portion of the crowd is just as uncomfortable with cocky foreigners (especially French ones) and men kissing each other on the lips as the rednecks that were squirming on screen.
Ferrell and McKay decided that the film would work best if the racing scenes were as realistic as possible. They pull it off — outrageously comic moments aside, the film looks and sounds remarkably authentic. NASCAR fans will appreciate this, especially in the inevitable Big Race near the end of the film. I have next to no interest in auto racing, however, and I thought the finale was draggy.
But it also was funny, and that’s the main thing. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is uneven, but if you go in ready for a lot of goofy humor, you will likely have a good time. And even if you hate it, the air-conditioning is a relief.