"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is a bit of a mess, but it is a genial mess, and one that will make you laugh. Which is the whole idea.
Even if you feel sheepish and abashed the next morning, it is hard to resist smiling at the antics of the NASCAR racing champion with two first names, a man, as the ads testify, "who could only count to #1."
As co-written by star Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (who has a cameo as a feckless race car driver), "Talladega Nights" is not the kind of coherent, internally consistent comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" is. Rather, like the "Saturday Night Live" shows where Ferrell and McKay met, it is a series of sketches and set pieces, some of which work while others misfire.
"Talladega Nights" is also, like many of the modern crop of guy comedies, hampered by periodic descents into what the ratings board calls "crude and sexual humor." Given that the basic tone here is surprisingly sweet, these forays feel as though they were grafted onto a film that would have been better off without them.
On the other hand, the idea of joining a satire of NASCAR culture with a spoof on self-help psychobabble of the "you have to make friends with the fear" variety is an especially potent one, and not that different in theme from what Pixar set out to do in "Cars."
And not to forget the expert Mr. Ferrell, the master of an abashed, almost sheepish innocence that has roots all the way back to silent comedian Harry Langdon. There is a real sincerity to Ferrell's characterization, as there was in the earlier "Elf," an ability to take silly things so completely seriously that laughter inevitably results.
Ferrell is also generous, and one reason "Talladega" is successful is his willingness to share the screen in mano a mano comedy standoffs with a trio of gifted male costars who can be just as funny as he is. In chronological order they are Gary Cole, John C. Reilly and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Cole plays Ricky's reprobate father, Reese Bobby, a man so addicted to speed that his son ended up being born in a stock car. On a memorable elementary school Career Day, the only time Ricky had seen his father in years, Bobby Sr. passes on some words to live by: "If you ain't first, you're last."
Reilly, a gifted actor who rarely does straight comedy, plays Ricky's lifelong friend and driving teammate, Cal Naughton Jr., a selfless soul who would very much like, if it's not asking too much, to win just one little race.
Wackiest of all is British comic Cohen, a man who specializes in getting deeper than deep into his singular characters, people like rogue interviewer Ali G and journalist Borat Sagdiyev, the sixth most famous man in Kazakhstan.
Cohen plays Jean Girard, a champion Formula One driver who is very very very French, to the point of enjoying jazz, wearing black leather, being sponsored by Perrier and reading Camus' "The Stranger" while he drives.
Speaking English with an impeccably awful French accent, Girard also happens to be a gay man who enjoys crepes and has shown up in America specifically to challenge Ricky Bobby's supremacy. This is a clash that will rock the self-described "big hairy American winning machine" to his core and lead to such unforeseen consequences as delivering pizzas by bicycle and driving a car with a cougar for a passenger. Don't even ask.
Though "Talladega Nights" is very much a guy comedy, it has found room for some sharp and amusing female roles. Leslie Bibb is all she should be as Ricky's glossy blond trophy wife, Carley; Jane Lynch stands up for comic sanity as Ricky's hardscrabble mom, Lucy Bobby; and Amy Adams, in a departure from "Junebug," plays Ricky's loyal assistant Susan.
When the last race has been run, however, "Talladega Nights" belongs to Will Ferrell. He's created a voice and a physical look for Ricky Bobby, complete down to a soul patch under his lower lip that is both authentic and comic, and his ability to be amusing even when he doesn't appear to be doing anything is remarkable. For a film that feels like it has nearly as many lapses as the Talladega 500 has laps, a gift like that is irreplaceable.
'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby' MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references and brief comic violence A Columbia Pictures release. Director Adam McKay. Producers Jimmy Miller, Judd Apatow. Screenplay Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Director of photography Oliver Wood. Editor Brent White. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In general release.