Here’s hoping Will Ferrell is done sowing his sports-comedy oats.
NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is more like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy than 2005’s soccer film Kicking and Screaming, a comedic red card.
But when its budget isn’t being blown on racing sequences, Talladega Nights strains between spot-on satire and obvious stereotypes. Trying to recreate Anchorman’s relaxed, gleefully weird improvisation feels too often like a forced-laugh competition to make as many oddball animal references, similes or metaphors as possible. Gary Cole, Sacha Baron Cohen and John C. Reilly are, as always, a hoot, but they were long before their warm welcome into Ferrell’s Frat Pack fold.
Talladega Nights is best at lampooning sports homophobia in general and the ludicrous commercialization of NASCAR — a sport that is garishly presented as a four-hour advertisement.
Ferrell’s dimwitted driver Ricky Bobby (a close cousin of his Dubya characterization) is so bound by endorsement deals that he wears his promotion-patched gear everywhere, mentions Powerade per contractual obligation in every Grace he gives and drives with a windshield-wide sticker. “This sticker is dangerous and inconvenient, but I do love Fig Newtons,” he says.
Sponsor love is a far cry from Ricky’s start as a makeshift fill-in for fictitious Laughing Clown Malt Liquor. (This fictitious brand already has been converted to merchandise by NASCAR, which threw organizational support behind this skewering.)
Thanks to degenerate deadbeat dad Reese (Cole), Ricky’s motto is come in first or come in last. His top finishes largely are thanks to teammate Cal Naughton Jr. (Reilly). As part of a duo called “Shake and Bake,” Cal runs interference for Ricky, but never gets to win for himself. Reilly’s bottled-up hurt at settling for silver is one of many spotlight moments for the actor, who’s unable to steal this movie as Steve Carell did Anchorman because he disappears for too-long stretches.
Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby hits a crushing low: Mentally thrown by a hellacious wreck, he loses his wheelman mojo, his trophy wife (Leslie Bibb), his spot on the team and most of his dignity to Jean Girard (Cohen), a gay French nemesis who’s jumped ship from “Formula Une.” Cohen’s Peter Sellers-inspired turn, in which his personal life repulses NASCAR nation while his driving excites them, is a highlight even as some French jokes about crepes run into the ground.
When faces should hurt from laughter, butts might ache in a long, lame second act of Ricky regaining confidence. Only indifferent zingers from a perma-drunk Cole, who shows up to help out, enliven a segment that pads the movie out to nearly two hours.
It at least concludes with bust-a-gut stuff thanks to punchlines involving Applebee’s, Pat Benatar and Highlander. Ferrell’s subversive middle finger at NASCAR is tall and occasionally uproarious, but only intermittently smarter than what that gesture implies.