In his transition from scene-stealing bit parts to leading man roles, Will Ferrell has hit some potholes along the way (Bewitched, Melinda and Melinda). Lesson learned, he's now returned to his original winning formula of the woefully oblivious, totally obnoxious egomaniac.
Talladega Nights tells the deeply silly story of redneck racing legend Ricky Bobby, conceived in the ladies' room of a steakhouse and birthed in the back-seat of a Chevelle. His lowlife daddy (Gary Cole) sticks around just long enough to instill the young boy with a love of fast cars. Dad's parting wisdom? "If you ain't first, you're last."
Ricky Bobby grows into the type of man who feasts on KFC and Taco Bell, and brags about his "smoking hot" trophy wife and his two nasty little brats, whom he has christened "Walker" and "Texas Ranger." With the help of his dim-witted best buddy, Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly apparently taking a break from the Oscar circuit), Ricky Bobby has vaulted to the top of the stock car circuit, earning so many lucrative endorsement deals that he includes a mention of POWERade while praying to the baby Jesus. But competition arrives in the form of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Ali G), every good old boy's nightmare: an effete, jazz-loving, macchiato-swilling French driver, who came to America just to make Ricky's life hell. The intensity of their cross-cultural rivalry is epitomized by the corporate sponsors on their respective vehicles: Wonder Bread vs. Perrier.
Co-written by Ferrell and director Adam McKay (the duo also penned Anchorman), the script aims for a cultural balance that will amuse hipsters and the NASCAR nation alike. Not everything works, though unfortunate side trips into xenophobia and homophobia are tastelessly flat, and Cohen's Inspector Clouseau accent wears thin quickly. Amy Adams (Junebug) is criminally underused until the last reel. The cast is loaded with strong comedy players like Jane Lynch and Molly Shannon, though their moments to shine are brief, as this is clearly Ferrell's vehicle, and he squeezes every last mile he can out of it. Never as inspired or surreal as Anchorman, the flick is nonetheless proudly stupid and rolls over the skid marks of Southern culture with high spirits and low IQ. The humor never finds a fifth gear, but it does cruise along at decent pace. Just like the Burt Reynolds car movies of yesteryear, there's an outtakes reel during the closing credits and much of it is funnier than the actual film.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].