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MOVIE REVIEW

With Ferrell at wheel, 'Talladega' wins

``Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is the sort of cheerfully asinine comedy that twists your arm until you submit. So, to Will Ferrell -- clown, freak, bully -- I scream, ``Uncle!" Ferrell co-wrote ``Talladega Nights" with the director Adam McKay. They also made 2003's TV news farce ``Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" together, and that arbitrarily amusing escapade was a warm-up for the more confident shenanigans they inflict on us here. The movie isn't a mean-spirited rag on NASCAR or its fans, though. It's a goof on the macho corniness of the racing movie.

Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a witless pit crewman who becomes a NASCAR superstar after his driver goes cuckoo. Fame does not improve Ricky's intelligence -- he and his trashy Dixie-chick wife (Leslie Bibb) name their sons Walker and Texas Ranger in praise of the old Chuck Norris show -- but it does afford the movie a chance to build a number of daffy sequences around the excesses the sport affords him.

The first 20 minutes come on fast and easy, whisking us from Ricky's speed-obsessed childhood to his sudden celebrity. There's the marriage, a few hilarious TV spots, fake interviews, a Motley Crüe song, and the tickling sight of Ricky driving a Wonder Bread-sponsored car. But the movie's been made with a surprisingly risky rhythm: That introductory blitz of jokes and gags settles into a single long scene at the Bobby family dinner table. Ricky tells us the meal has been sponsored by a certain energy drink, then he blesses the food, and an argument breaks out over which version of Jesus is better.

That meal goes on for several minutes more, and it underscores the noblest thing about ``Talladega Nights": that Ferrell and McKay are determined to see a scene through to its most unnatural conclusion. The dinner, with the tacky wife trying to maintain some order and the young'ns cussing poor grandpa, turns into a surreal set piece. Not much later, there is another at the bar where Ricky and his red-blooded American pals' country-loving good time is ruined by the jazz an accented stranger (Sacha Baron Cohen) plays on the jukebox.

His name is Jean Girard. He's gay, he's French, and he's just been hired to race by the same family that owns Ricky's team. He's capable of reading Camus and sipping wine while he drives, and his boyfriend is a vision of pomposity played by Andy Richter. The knee-jerk homophobia that would usually take over a dude comedy when someone like Jean arrives doesn't really surface. I'm thinking about the nosedives ``Wedding Crashers" took whenever its one gay character popped into view.

``Talladega Nights" is too slaphappy to annoy anybody, however. Cohen, who's better known to HBO subscribers as Ali G, gives Girard so many delightful curlicues (for one thing, his accent is not French; it's Peter Sellers) that the joke he makes of the character has numerous punch lines. One of the funniest shots in the movie is a close-up of Ferrell and Cohen in a nose-to-nose shout-down. You can see both men fighting the urge not to break character and collapse into hysterics.

The movie's generosity extends to nearly the whole cast. John C. Reilly plays Ricky's vividly dumb best friend, and while he's been funny before, I've never hurt laughing at him as I did here. Gary Cole and the unsung Jane Lynch have plum parts as Ricky's parents. Molly Shannon is tart in her few scenes, which, like a lot of moments in ``Talladega Nights," are glorified outtakes. Even Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell, the two hellions playing Walker and Texas Ranger, are a blast.

Best of all is Amy Adams, that Oscar-nominee from ``Junebug," who here plays Ricky's drab assistant. She spends the movie in thankless group shots, then in one outrageous moment that feels ripped from a speech Nicole Kidman gave Tom Cruise in ``Days of Thunder," she comes to magic, comic life.

Naturally, the fleet, effortless marvels of the first 60 or so minutes prove unsustainable. After Ricky has a career-altering accident, the film becomes a lower-energy movie-of-the-week riff. This patch does produce one stellar hospital scene between Ferrell and Michael Clarke Duncan, as Ricky's pit-crew chief. Ferrell thinks he's paralyzed, Duncan tries to talk some sense into him, and the two men wind up tearfully screaming at each other in high Oscar-clip fashion.

A nonsense encounter like that is what makes ``Talladega Nights" so appealing. Not only is it the first comedy since ``The 40-Year-Old Virgin" that's been made with an improvisatory spirit and a degree of respect for an audience, it's also bravely poised on the fine edge between hilarity and disaster. Much of the credit belongs to Ferrell, who sets the picture's tone and is smart enough to surround himself with people who can follow his lead.

In the wrong hands (Nora Ephron's or Woody Allen's), Ferrell looks foolish because the directors are too in awe of his gangbusters style -- that or his status as a box-office lure. McKay, who was also a writer on ``Saturday Night Live," seems to have Ferrell's wild nature mostly under control. This is not to say the comedian doesn't go crazy. We are treated to the riotous, almost David Lynchian moment in which Ferrell runs around a motorway in his undies screaming that he's on fire. He's not. Actually, come to think of it: He is.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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