With his Summer 2005 output of "Kicking & Screaming" and "Bewitched," Will Ferrell did a lot to slow all that talk about his being the biggest comic movie star in the business. The exhaustingly named "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is the first true Ferrell vehicle since 2004's similarly wordy "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." Reuniting Ferrell with his "SNL" and "Anchorman" cohort writer-director Adam McKay, "Talladega Nights" is a tighter, more structured film than that earlier collaboration, which is probably both to its advantage and determent.
Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) feels the need for speed. Ever since his father Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) ditched him as a boy, he's lived by the motto "If you ain't first, you're last." That ethos has earned him oodles of NASCAR wins, the devotion of his best friend (and fellow driver) Cal, a skanky-hot NASCAR wife (Leslie Bibb) and countless endorsements. But if Ricky can't win, he'd just as soon crash, and that volatility goes over the edge when talented Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, spouting the best intentionally horrible French accent since the days of Peter Sellers) joins the circuit with one purpose -- to defeat Ricky Bobby. Will Ricky learn to win in life by accepting losing on the track? Sure. Probably something like that.
While "Anchorman" was such an amorphous, improvised blob of a movie that a second film was created entirely from alternate takes, "Talladega Nights" sticks closely to the conventions of the underdog sports movie genre. That helps it zip by, eliminating some of the pacing problems that infected "Anchorman." But people love "Anchorman" exactly because it was so digressive, because the movie took the time to dwell on the weird things happening to peripheral characters. While some "Talladega Nights" have that loose feeling that the camera could just run forever, Ferrell and McKay know that there are certain punchlines and plotpoints that need to be hit.
I can't shake the feeling that Ferrell's first improv instinct is always to yell, over-enunciate or to run around in his undies, not that those instincts don't have their place. With a central character that broad, the more precise and under-played turns by Reilly and Cole stand out, as does the presence of Amy Adams, who is criminally underused in the first half of the movie, but blooms by the end as Ricky's devoted assistant. Nobody will accuse Cohen of underplaying, but his Girard should whet appetites for the release of the "Borat" movie later this year.
Whether the movie is a loving tribute to the NASCAR lifestyle or a stinging satire of all things Red State-affiliated may depend on how sacrosanct you happen to believe auto racing to be. If you look at easy targets lampooned throughout "Talladega Nights," the jokes at the expense of the French and big corporations are myriad, but McKay and Ferrell cast nary a glance on the racing fans themselves. There are no toothless hicks, very few trashy bra-less women and the film is nearly mullet-free. None of the stereotypes that you might expect to be exploited are on display, which frankly makes "Talladega Nights" a good deal more open-minded than Pixar's "Cars."
"Talladega Nights" embraces the NASCAR commercial ethos and it's hard to think of another movie with quite so many promotional plugs. Actually, I can, but that would involve admitting that I'd seen "Josie and the Pussycats," a movie that used the pervasiveness of advertising as a plot point. In "Talladega Nights," Wonder Bread, Applebee's, Taco Bell and dozens of other brand names get unqualified commercial spots that all have double-meanings. Sure, snobs will see a NASCAR family celebrating dinner at Applebee's as a sign of their low standards and they'll chortle with contempt, but for the large chunks of the country where a big dinner at Applebee's is just a matter of course, they'll laugh with familiarity.
It's that middle-of-the-road sensibility that's likely to give Ferrell his biggest hit in a couple years, but it also creates the impression that "Talladega Nights" is playing it safe, which will prevent it from gaining the sort of obsessive cult following that can quote "Anchorman" verbatim.