Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
I know you doubt it. You think it should be Vince Vaughn, or Will Smith, Owen Wilson, or Ben Stiller, or maybe even Steve Carell, but I'm afraid I have to insist: the funniest man in American film right now is Will Ferrell. And this is the movie to prove it.
Ferrell is Ricky Bobby, a natural born speed-freak and a mechanic on the NASCAR circuit until his team's driver refuses to get back into the race after a pit stop for spot of lunch. That's when Ricky gets his chance to show what he can do behind the wheel of a sports car. Soon he's the top driver in the US of A, with a red hot smokin' wife (Leslie Bibb), two sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, and a best friend, Cal (John C Reilly), who loves him so much he doesn't mind always coming in second - or if he does, he'll bury it down so deep it'll never be an issue between them.
With the exception of Elf, Ferrell's comedy hasn't translated too well on this side of the Atlantic, and as the title suggests, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby could hardly be more American. But that's what makes this his most accessible movie for Europeans - it's really one great big joke on God's Own Country.
Ricky lives his life according to the creed he picked up from his absentee dad (Gary Cole): 'If you ain't first, you're last'. It's a moronic aphorism, but it's not so far from the way many people think in a culture that puts a lot of store in winners. The movie is sharp on the vagaries of fly-by-night celebrity, with its commercial endorsements, trophy wives, and triumphal sense of entitlement; all of which can disappear in a trice.
Ricky's infantile Christianity, his monstrously spoiled children, proud ignorance and knee-jerk homophobia are all endemic across the States, and pointedly contrasted here with the outrageously caricatured but nevertheless infinitely smarter, more sophisticated, and more talented (gay) French Formula One driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). Cohen's OTT performance makes Peter Sellers' Clouseau seem like a model of restraint in comparison and practically steals the movie - certainly it guarantees him a Hollywood career even without all the buzz surrounding his own project, Borat.
But don't underestimate Ferrell's ability to make his dumb American male endearing against all the odds. There's an underlying innocence in ignorance on this awesome scale - and anyway, who can resist an actor so ready to strip to his skivvies at the faintest excuse, or a character who's prepared to drive with his eyes shut to get his killer instincts back. Two scenes here are as funny as anything I've seen all year. In one, Ferrell stabs himself in the leg with a scalpel to prove he is paralysed (he isn't). Then later, he agrees to get in a car with a hungry cougar as a test of his courage. A long, lingering kiss between former adversaries Bobby and Girard may be more subversive than anything in Brokeback Mountain.
Ferrell, who also wrote the screenplay with director Adam McKay seems to have perfected his shtick. The structure is straight from Anchorman, and Pixar's Cars made a good many of the same jabs at the NASCAR mentality, but the improvisational process he and McKay have developed is going to inspire plenty of imitators. In effect they shoot the scenes straight, then again allowing all the cast to riff and see where it leads them. As a result, there is barely a supporting character in Talladega Nights who doesn't score some laughs (kudos to Jane Lynch and Gary Coles as Ricky's parents). For a dumb movie, this one is pretty darn smart.
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