There are some comic actors—Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler come to mind—whose appeal is subject to debate. They’re acquired tastes, capable of veering from charming to annoying within a single film. But Will Ferrell’s funniness exists in a territory beyond dispute. If nothing else, the man wins through effort alone. No one else tries so hard to make us laugh, tossing out dignity, taste, and restraint like so much ballast along the way. Maybe that’s why Ferrell specializes in playing characters who are single-mindedly and cluelessly dedicated to getting it right, whether “it” is partying (Old School), building toys for Santa (Elf), or on-air preening (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy).
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Columbia)finds Ferrell teamed again with Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman. This time, Ferrell’s trademark can-do hero is a stock-car driver who lives by the dictum uttered long ago by his father (Gary Cole), who was unfortunately stoned at the time: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Ricky Bobby is famous for either winning races or wiping out trying. He’s never come in second and never let his best friend and racing partner Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly) pull ahead at the finish line. Ricky’s life is one long montage of victory laps, breathless ESPN tributes, and make-out sessions with his hot wife Carley (Leslie Bibb). That is, until he comes face to face with his arch-nemesis Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a gay Frenchman who reads Camus and drinks café macchiato during races, all the while muttering senseless imprecations like, “And now ze matador shall dance with ze blind shoemaker.”
The clash between the red-blooded jingoism of NASCAR and the fey artiness of Formula 1 is the animating joke of the movie, and thanks to Ferrell and Cohen’s giddy embrace of their characters, the joke goes surprisingly far. It’s tough to do a comic French accent without impersonating Peter Sellers as Clouseau, and, to his credit, Cohen never takes that bait. He plays Jean Girard with a coolly precise deadpan that complements Ferrell’s genial dopiness. There’s one improvised moment when, inches from each other’s faces, the rivals try to top each other with a final cutting insult, but they can’t stop speaking over each other long enough to hear a word. It’s a fencing match of stupidity and, along with the epic race at the end, one of the movie’s high points.
Like nearly every American comedy made in the last 30 years (should we blame Saturday Night Live?), Talladega Nights often has the feeling of an overextended skit, with long, fallow sequences between the funny bits. It submits not once but twice to a bit Ferrell already used in Old School—the running-down-the-street-naked gag. In Talladega Nights’ PG-13 version, Ricky Bobby, irrationally convinced he’s on fire after a crash, streaks down the racetrack wearing only his tighty-whiteys. I wonder what real NASCAR fans will think of this sendup of their sport: Will they object to the stereotyping of racing fans as flag-waving rubes or celebrate their emergence into the comedy mainstream, even as butts of the joke?
Still, Talladega Nights is as good as a summer comedy about NASCAR has any right to be, with fine actors tucked into every nook and cranny. The smoldering Cole plays Reese Bobby, Ricky’s wastrel dad, and the supremely likable Reilly reprises his Boogie Nights role as the loyal if dimwitted best bud of the superstar hero. Fans of last year’s Junebug will be pleased to see Amy Adams as Susan, the spirited redhead who rescues Ricky from his funk with a pep talk that spirals into a mad declaration of lust. If only the whole movie could sustain the mood of loopy spontaneity on view in the closing-credit outtakes.