Thursday, August 31, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby / *** (PG-13)

Ricky Bobby: Will Ferrell
Cal Naughton, Jr.: John C. Reilly
Jean Girard: Sacha Baron Cohen
Reese Bobby: Gary Cole
Lucius Washington: Michael Clarke Duncan
Susan: Amy Adams
Lucy Bobby: Jane Lynch
Larry Dennit, Jr.: Greg Germann
Carley Bobby: Leslie Bibb

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Adam McKay. Written by Will Ferrell and McKay. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references, and brief comic violence).

Will Farrell is one of those rare Saturday Night Live veterans who’ve been able to break away and develop a lucrative career with films that are both financially and artistically successful. An easy comparison would be to Adam Sandler, but Farrell is the more artistically successful of the two. Both have high profile projects where they play characters that basically act like idiots and are based in the lower forms of humor. The difference is Sandler’s characters are adolescents who refuse to grow up, while Farrell’s are adolescents who can’t help but grow up.

Farrell’s latest socially stunted moron is the NASCAR driver “who could only count to #1,” according to the film’s tag line. Farrell and his writing partner and director Adam McKay have said that “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is the second installment in a planned trilogy of men whose celebrity outmatches their talent in their chosen fields. Their first collaboration was the enjoyable news anchor skewering “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. My first question is what other profession would go perfectly with a name containing the initials “R.B.”? Perhaps in their final installment, the unlikely hero will be a movie star who shockingly becomes one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood after humbly beginning as a cast member on a late night sketch comedy show.

But I digress. “Talladega Nights” is about the ever-so-wonderfully named racing maverick Ricky Bobby (Farrell), who’s actually a pretty damn good driver. What Ricky Bobby lacks is any sense of tact, most necessary social graces, and what might even pass for half a brain. He’s a good ol’ boy destined from birth to go fast. Born in the back seat of a muscle car going 110 mph, Ricky Bobby brings a new definition to Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” line, “I feel the need… the need for speed!”

The film has a lot of fun with Ricky Bobby’s family, both his parents and his wife and kids. His father Reese (Gary Cole, “The Brady Bunch Movie”) is a particular low form of trailer trash who bails on Ricky and his mom (Jane Lynch, “Best in Show”), but not before instilling upon the impressionable young Ricky that first place is the only place there is because everyone else is a loser.

After Ricky has become a NASCAR Champion, his family consists of his “smokin’ hot wife” Carley (Leslie Bibb of TV’s “Crossing Jordan”) and their two sons Walker and Texas Ranger. “If we wanted two little girls, we would have named them ‘Dr. Quinn’ and ‘Medicine Woman’.” Conversations at the Bobby household consist of arguing the merits of praying to the infant Jesus over the grown up one.

Ricky’s life long friend Cal Naughton, Jr. is played with impeccable stupidity by John C. Reilly (“Chicago”). Cal makes Ricky look like a college drop-out at least, but their mutual love for driving has lead to a great team; Cal always takes second place. When Call asks Ricky if he could let him win just once, Ricky doesn’t even consider it because there cannot be two number ones. Cal’s understanding of Ricky’s denial is simple, “’Cause that would make eleven.”

Ricky’s bullheadedness requires that he either finish first in every race or crash. This does not bode well for his racing team in the mind boggling NASCAR points system. In order to produce a true number one driver, Ricky’s sponsor Larry Dennit, Jr. (Greg Germann, TV’s “Ally McBeal”) hires the number one French Formula One driver as his new lead driver. Played by the chameleon comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (HBO’s “Da Ali G Show”), Jean Girard is like a mentally challenged version of the snooty Frenchman and he throws down the gauntlet with Ricky before their first race – giving him a debilitating injury that leads to a most embarrassing night on the track.

It takes all of the people closest to Ricky to put him back on his feet. He doesn’t make it easy for anyone, including his father, who has some pretty unusual training techniques for a NASCAR driver. One involves a live cougar.

While “Anchorman” played kind of like an extended, albeit very clever and amusing, sketch comedy idea blown up into a full length feature, “Talladega Nights” seems more like a genuine movie idea. Using quite a few actual NASCAR personalities for the track scenes and providing thrilling racing sequences to go along with the story, this film is more of a theatrical experience than you might expect from an idiot comedy.

Farrell and McKay are also true to their own senses of humor. They don’t pander to their audience with typical jokes or even plot developments. They are willing to take a risk on their own unique sense of humor, trusting their audience to follow them into the absurd while keeping a firm grasp on the human elements of their characters.

Not only did Ricky Bobby and his family make me laugh, I also cared about them. I would have like to have seen more development of the Amy Adams (“Junebug”) character, who provides the sexual catalyst for one of the films biggest laughs; but I came out of the theater feeling like I had spent a good time with some friends. Thank God my friends aren’t quite as dense as those people, even if they do know how to go fast.

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