At first glance, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby looks like a re-iteration of the last film from star Will Ferrell and his writing partner (and director) Adam McKay, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The jut-jawed clueless self-confidence of the title character; the moments of wacky flailing captured in the trailer; the colon-split title firmly positioning the film in the realm of the mock-mythic. And Talladega Nights is somewhat similar to Anchorman; it's also far superior in a number of ways, and serves as a nice demonstration of how story structure and stupid comedy can work -- and work well -- together.
Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) had a pretty simple childhood: Dreams of being a racecar driver, and a father, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole), who stepped out to get some milk one evening and didn't come back for about 10 years. Raised by his homespun, no-nonsense mom (Jane Lynch, in another deadpan comedy performance), Ricky kept hearing his father's words in head like a curse: "If you ain't first, you're last." In time, he became a NASCAR pit crew member; one day, fate gave him a chance to "go real fast" on the track, and now he's become the top winner in the game: Fame, endorsements and success.
But between winning races and thwarting the ambition of his co-driver Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly), between endorsing feminine hygiene products ("Maxpad: The official tampon of NASCAR.") and neglecting the raising of his sons Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell), Ricky may have lost sight of ... himself. The racing game is changing; a new force on the track, the openly gay French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) is challenging Ricky Bobby's top spot ... and after a terrifying crash, Ricky Bobby has to rebuild his life. Of course, this being a Will Ferrell film, the terrifying crash includes the sight of Ricky Bobby -- convinced he's on fire -- running around the track stripped down to his underwear. And racing with a massive Fig Newtons endorsement logo on his windshield: "This sticker is dangerous and inconvenient, but I do love Fig Newtons." After the crash, Ricky's mind is addled -- he even believes he's paralyzed. A doctor explains that Ricky's problem is psychosomatic, inspiring Cal to ask "When you say 'psychosomatic,' do you mean he can start fires with his mind?"
So, there's zaniness in Talladega Nights, but it all hews close to the line of something like a story -- which makes it actually funnier than Anchorman's uneven, loosey-goosey, throw-a-joke-at-the-wall and see if it sticks approach. In exile, Ricky loses his wife (Leslie Bibb) to Cal; Girard and Cal become the lead racers for Ricky's old team ... and Ricky has to move back in with his mom and re-learn how to drive from his grizzled father Reese.
Reese has some simple lessons for Ricky -- drive without fear, feel the road, drive fast out of necessity -- with less-than-simple executions involving a cougar, a blindfold and a kilo of cocaine taped to the underside of his car with a call placed to the cops. And if Ricky's romance with his assistant Susan (Amy Adams) and the interpersonal relationships among the members of Ricky's pit crew are a little thin, the compensating reality is that at least they're not bloated -- McKay must have a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor, but the film on the screen keeps a relatively steady pace, even as digressions like Mrs. Bobby re-civilizing Walker and Texas Ranger from their feral, bratty state add to the laughs.
Credit should also go to McKay for not neglecting the racing footage itself: Hiring stunt director Andy Gill (Bad Boys II, Herbie: Fully Loaded) and director of photography Oliver Wood (The Bourne Identity, Face/Off) means that the racing isn't just tacked onto the comedy; in many cases, it is the comedy. Some of the shots look terrifyingly fast and real ... even if we do then cut into Jean Girard's car to see him sipping espresso in full racing gear or reading Camus as he drives.
And the supporting cast is praiseworthy as well, from Reilly's work as stalwart lieutenant Cal, to Cohen's Euro-smooth Girard. Cal has been Ricky's friend since they were in grade five; at the start of the film, Cal's a perennial second-place finisher, tasked with boxing out other drivers so Ricky can come in first. When Cal asks Ricky if maybe -- maybe -- he could let Cal win just one time, Ferrell's blithe dismissal of the idea -- and Cal's straight-faced acceptance of his humiliation -- are comedy gold. Cohen's Girard may have an outrageous accent and an affection for ascots, but it's also worth noting that while Girard is both French and gay, he's treated with respect as a racer -- as Cal puts it, "Frenchy can drive." Cole -- a lamentably under-used actor -- gets to provide laughs and emotional balance as the drunk, unreliable Reese, while Michael Clarke Duncan and Adams put verve and zip in minor parts.
NASCAR culture has always left me cold -- I find nothing exciting about watching someone turn left 2,000 times, and find some audience members' anxious hope that someone might hit a wall to liven things up ghoulish at best -- but Talladega Nights successfuly mocks and celebrates modern driving culture. It also mocks and celebrates the all-American, win-at-all-costs spirit that has helped this nation get so much done and simultaneously get in so much trouble. And Ricky Bobby's journey back to greatness winds up both playing for laughs and working as a piece of dramatically interesting storytelling. It's kinda funny but also fitting: A director and performer collaborate on a movie about a man who has devoted his life to going around in circles, and wind up moving forward as filmmakers and story tellers. Talladega Nights isn't timeless cinema. It's not brilliant filmmaking. It's not a comedy for the ages. But right here, right now, where the rubber hits the road? It's a funny, smart comedy that has jokes aplenty and enough story to properly support them, which is more than enough to get it to the winner's circle in my book.