2 stars (out of four)
Your body lets you know if a comedy isn't working. Your shoulders tense up. You get restless. You start frowning, even if the film offers the occasional laugh and the hope of something better in the next reel.
"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is one of those movies. It seems like it'd be fun. You figure NASCAR and America's obsession with the loud, the fast and the fossil fuel-dependent could take a little kidding, as could the leaden seriousness of racing dramas such as "Bobby Deerfield" and "Days of Thunder." Even the yee-ha larks of yore from the Hal Needham oeuvre--"The Cannonball Run," "Cannonball Run II" and "Stroker Ace," and wasn't that a time?--are just asking for it.
"Talladega Nights" lacks the guts of genuine satire (its estimated $85 million dollar budget was too big for that), and it sputters as a good ol' boy outing with occasional forays into sincerity. Will Ferrell portrays North Carolina driving ace Ricky Bobby, a dim demon on wheels with sideburns like little racing stripes. John C. Reilly is his best friend and put-upon lackey, Cal Naughton. Sixteen years ago in "Days of Thunder" Reilly played a minor character named Buck Bretherton, which is a much funnier name than Cal Naughton.
Reilly's one of the saving graces of "Talladega Nights." Another is Gary Cole, playing Ricky's wastrel, malt-likkered daddy. Jane Lynch, ever valuable, plays Ricky's mamma. These three supporting players, good actors all, hang in there and nail their laughs even when the script settles for surprisingly little.
As conceived by screenwriters Ferrell and director Adam McKay, Ricky is a one-track boor, selfish to the bone. With his Lady Macbeth-down-South trophy wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), egging him on to greater glory and profits, Ricky and Carley raise two of the meanest little boys on the planet. Ricky exploits his lifelong friend Cal, also a driver, and, like Ricky, a former pit crewman. At the behest of Ricky's sleazy sponsor ( Greg Germann), Cal steals Ms. Bobby away from his friend. Ricky bottoms out after surviving a devastating crash. Then dad re-enters his life and gets him back on track in time for the big Talladega 500.
No one goes to these movies for a fresh and intricately layered story. "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," which was also directed and co-written by McKay, followed a similar rags to riches to rags to riches arc. "Anchorman," however, was buoyed by its set pieces--idiotically hilarious routines such as the jazz-flute first date between Ferrell and Christina Applegate. In "Talladega Nights" Farrell's boorishness lacks variety, and spice, as well as the sublimely clueless quality Ferrell brought to Ron Burgundy.
Here the jokes never really get rolling. Early on, at the Bobby dinner table, Ferrell and company engage in a long debate about whom they're praying to, the "infant" Jesus or the full-grown one, with the beard. Promising idea, listless execution. When Ricky's slithering French driving ace adversary (Sacha Baron Cohen, who seems to have left his comic timing at the airport) taunts Ricky with a conversation regarding crepes, you wonder why the scene even made the cut. Oddly, much of what worked in the "Talladega Nights" trailer isn't even in the final version of the film.
Director McKay isn't yet much of a comedy director; he thinks funny on paper but he has a harder time shooting and pacing a scene so that it goes somewhere visually. His style favors harsh close-ups and a jittery editing rhythm, and cinematographer Oliver Wood can't light even the most straightforward of interior set-ups without making everybody look like hell. (This is the latest example of pallid cinematography helping to kill the laughs in a comedy; last month's wash-out was "My Super Ex-Girlfriend.") As with story issues, nobody really cares about the quality of the lighting in a movie like "Talladega Nights." Yet the slovenly visual approach brings out the worst in already thin material.
There are some laughs here, a couple of good-sized ones. I liked the red-eye wedding photo montage. Cole hits the bull's-eye with a joke about complimentary tickets to his son's comeback race. A knife-in-the-leg gag, straight out of "Young Frankenstein," works despite its familiarity. Now and then, the movie allows you to relax into its brand of stupid-smart comedy. The rest of the time your shoulders scrunch up and ask the eternal question: Why is this routine not quite working?
'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby'
Directed by Adam McKay; screenplay by Will Ferrell and McKay; cinematography by Oliver Wood; edited by Brent White; production design by Clayton R. Hartley; music by Alex Wurman; produced by Jimmy Miller and Judd Apatow. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references and brief comic violence).
Ricky Bobby - Will Ferrell
Cal Naughton Jr. - John C. Reilly
Jean Girard - Sacha Baron Cohen
Reese Bobby - Gary Cole
Lucius Washington - Michael Clarke Duncan
Carley Bobby - Leslie Bibb
Lucy Bobby - Jane Lynch
Susan - Amy AdamsCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times