Talladega Nights (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Talladega Nights (subtitled, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) is, in many ways, just like every other Will Ferrell comedy: take some satire, add some hit-and-miss jokes, throw in a lightweight storyline, and let the lead actor be the catalyst that crystallizes these elements. Ferrell's ability to successfully fulfill that function is more dubious here than in his three best-known previous efforts, Old School, Elf, and Anchorman. The writing for those films was crisper, the humor less scattershot, and the overall effect more appealing. There are occasional moments of inspired comedy in Talladega Nights, but the film as a whole doesn't work. We're left ho-humming our way through one obligatory scene after another and wincing through a sting of failed gags until the next bit comes along that tickles our funny bone. It's a little like watching a current episode of Saturday Night Live (Farrell's showbiz alma mater) - you laugh a few times but, in the end, you wonder why you bothered.

The subject of satire for Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay (the man who helmed Anchorman) is NASCAR - as rich a field as any for parody. Surprisingly, however, the two are gentle with their dulled barbs, as if unwilling to offend a portion of their potential audience. The result is that Talladega Nights comes closer to being a sports movie than a satire of one. The movie takes feeble stabs at sponsorship and overzealous fans, but that's about it. The entire NASCAR culture is left with few blemishes. Compared to what Christopher Guest might do with this setting, McKay and Ferrell's approach is reverential.

Ever since childhood, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) has had a thing for speed. Couple that with a competitive nature and it was only natural that he would become a fixture on the NASCAR circuit. Abetted in races by his teammate and best friend, Cal Naughton Jr. (a criminally underused John C. Reilly), who runs interference on the track for him, Ricky becomes the #1 driver. There are perks that come with the position, including money, fame, and a hot wife (Leslie Bibb). In the blond and curvaceous Carley, Ricky thinks he has found true love, but he's ignoring the mousy Susan (an even more criminally underused Amy Adams), who has a thing for him. Bobby's time at the top has an expiration date, however, and the arrival of Frenchman Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) signals its arrival. Soon, Bobby has lost everything and he has to decide whether to try for a comeback or move on with his life.

Talladega Nights contains plenty of the usual Will Ferrell tomfoolery. Whether he's running around in his underwear thinking he's on fire or in a wheelchair pretending to be paralyzed, Ferrell gets plenty of opportunities to cut loose. While some of these generate chuckles, belly laughs are in short supply. For my money, the most energetic comedic moment comes not from Ferrell but from Amy Adams (Junebug). Her over-the-top pep talk is oddly reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson's stirring speech in Deep Blue Sea. The punchline isn't as good, but the buildup is better. The Applebee's product placements are a little too obvious. Yes, they're part of a joke, but that doesn't alter the fact that we're literally watching a commercial.

Ferrell has developed a loyal band of followers not unlike those who trailed Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler during their early cinematic days. They will undoubtedly be pleased by what Talladega Nights has to offer. The more general comedy-seeking audiences may not be as enthused. There's plenty of humor in the movie, but a dearth of good humor. Ferrell and McKay hope that, between laughs, viewers will start to care about the characters. But they're too cartoonish for that, designed as they are to garner laughs. It's their failure to accomplish the latter on a regular basis that causes the movie to sputter. Talladega Nights delivers what it promises - only not to the extent and with the intensity one expects.

Talladega Nights (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1