Will Ferrell strips down to his tighty-whities and runs around wackily in front of a crowd once again in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” He’s done much the same thing in virtually all his previous movies, of course, and your probable reaction to this one can be gauged by whether you’ve enjoyed the shtick in the past and want to see it again. I can’t imagine why any sensible person would choose to–even in “Old School” his naked routine seemed more repulsive than funny, given the comic’s less-than-photogenic physique. But in an age when so many people return repeatedly, like herds of lowing cattle, to something as witless and chaotic as “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” one must suppose anything’s possible, and the movie will probably make a mint.
“Talladega” transposes what’s become Ferrell’s standard character–the arrogantly stupid, oblivious and smugly obnoxious dolt–into the world of race-car driving. Ricky Bobby, we’re shown, was born to redneck parents Reese and Lucy (Gary Cole and Jane Lynch) in the backseat of a souped-up car that sped past the hospital because Reese didn’t care to stop. As a kid his only goal was to “go fast”–and he achieved it by slipping behind the wheel of his mom’s car while she went into a convenience store and roared off into traffic. (There’s a scene that parents in the audience should be pleased at the thought of their kids emulating.) Cut to the present, where Ricky, part of the pit crew for a slovenly NASCAR driver, jumps in to replace him on short notice and wins the race, quickly becoming number one on the circuit with the help of his childhood buddy Cal Naughton. Jr. (John C. Reilly), who acts as his wing man. (Their joint tactic to freeze out other drivers so Ricky always wins is called “Shake ’N Bake”–which encapsulates the level of their culture.) In time Ricky’s got a trophy wife (Leslie Bibb), wealth, fame, and a couple of rambunctious, nasty-mouthed boys named Walker and Texas Ranger (there’s that Ferrell wit at work again).
But Ricky’s plush world comes tumbling down when his smarmy boss (Greg Germann) brings in another racer to defeat and destroy him–Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who’s even more arrogant and brings with him the double whammy of being French (gasp!) and gay (gasp! gasp!). Soon Ricky’s gone bonkers, his wife has left him for Cal (and taken all his property with her), and he’s reduced to a job as a pizza deliveryman. But who should show up but his rascal of a father, long absent but now ready to be his seedy Obi-Wan and reconnect him to The Force? And the sense of family is reinforced when Lucy takes on the job of taming Ricky’s brattish kids.
Your tolerance of “Talladega” will largely depend on your taste for rude, raunchy farce and Ferrell’s unrestrained mugging and frantic slapstick. Most of the humor is of the Gomer Pyle-Beverly Hillbillies variety that tries to be simultaneously demeaning and affectionate, and the strong Francophobic and homophobic strain really panders to the prejudices that already exist among the picture’s target audience. It’s low-brow stuff of an extreme sort: your brow probably has to plummet below sea level before you’ll be able to appreciate it. As for Ferrell, for some his undisciplined turn (abetted by Adam McKay’s extremely permissive direction) will come across as nothing more than Ron Burgundy in hick mode and prove both tiring and slightly unpleasant; but fans whose appetite for his repetitive routine is undiminished will find it endlessly funny. (He’s sort of the modern Jerry Lewis: while even Adam Sandler is somewhat “mature,” the canny Peter Pan-ish adolescent schemer rejoicing in his calculated naughtiness, Ferrell is just the village idiot who’s blissfully unaware of his idiocy–the unaware, unreflective ID at full throttle. Some find that hilarious, others simply irritating and dumb.)
But even for those who consider Ferrell and his shtick grating (count me among them), the picture has a few saving graces. Not Cohen, whose combination Inspector Clouseau and James Bomd villain is just as creepy as Ferrell’s Bobby–even though a brief shot of him reading Camus while racing around the track is an oasis of wit in the hayseed setting. Nor any of the ladies–Bibb is a shrieking caricature, and Lynch and Amy Adams, as the sweetly supportive alternative to Bibb, are both terribly wasted. But Cole cuts an amusing figure as an unregenerate cad, and Reilly exhibits some low-key charm doing what’s essentially a Michael J. Pollard impression. Michael Clarke Duncan has a few moments as the head of Ricky’s pit crew, too. Decent work from DP Oliver Wood gives the movie some surface sheen.
“Ricky Bobby” obviously hopes to benefit from the popularity of NASCAR as well as Ferrell, and it probably will, despite the fact that it portrays its drivers as numbskulls and its fans as yahoos. (After all, the connection doesn’t seem to have hurt the below-average “Cars.”) But its celebration of infantilism on the speedway runs out of gas long before the last lap.