Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language drug references, and brief violence
Running Time: 105 min.

Cast: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Michael Clarke Duncan, Leslie Bibb, Adam McKay, Molly Shannon, David Koechner, Houston Tumlin, Grayson Russell, Andy Richter, Ted Manson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (cameo), Darrell Waltrip (cameo), Elvis Costello (cameo), Mos Def (cameo)
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Review published August 9, 2006

If I had to sum up the experience of watching Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in two words, those words would be, "scattershot laughs".  This micro-review could just as easily be applied to most of Ferrell's dumb comedy offerings over the years.  His characters may change, as well as the scenarios, but underneath the goofy characterizations and different wardrobe, most of these movies have the same brand of humor, going for the easy laugh, no matter how cheap.  These movies can be funny, and sometimes very funny, but on many occasions, the jokes bomb for whole scenes, zapping away the overall energy and momentum of the film as a whole.  Talladega Nights might have the goods to keep the Ferrell faithful giddy, but for the rest of us, it has more than the usual share of comedic lulls.

Will Ferrell (Winter Passing, Bewitched) plays champion NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, who literally from the day he was born, had a "need for speed".  His deadbeat father only imparted one bit of advice to him, "If you're not first, you're last", a golden rule of life that Ricky has adhered to in nearly everything he sets out to do.  He also likes to showboat how good he is, which causes his team owner so much aggravation that a new guy is brought in, a gay Frenchman named Jean Girard (Cohen, Madagascar) a former Formula One driver who may actually be even better than Ricky Bobby.  Ricky's life soon begins to fall apart, testing his mettle and drive to success when all that he's built up now seems to have met with failure.

I guess you can see where the film is going just from the plot summation.  Although done in a zany way, this is a film that adheres strictly to formula, as we watch a guy on top of the world suddenly lose it all, having to learn about humility, respect and life in general on his climb back up to the top.  I doubt anyone that goes to see this film really cares that it isn't very original in terms of its story, so it's futile to criticize it for a lack of surprises.  What's most important is that we laugh and laugh and laugh again.

I realize that the threshold for humor is very different in nearly everyone, and that's especially true when it comes to a brand of humor that you're either fully in tune with or you aren't.  My guess is that if you find all of Ferrell's films to be hilarious, you'll get enough laughs out of Talladega Nights to leave the theater with a smile.  If you think Ferrell has been hit-and-miss thus far in his career, you're likely to think the film is as expected.  Those that can't stand Ferrell or his humor should avoid the film altogether, as Ferrell's mugging and yelling, along with his penchant for gags just tossed in out of left field to get audiences to laugh out of surprise, are in full effect here. 

The slipshod way that Talladega Nights is put together makes it seem like they just brainstormed each scene right before filming and ad-libbed their way into jokes, rather than came into the project with a finished script.  Perhaps this comes out of Ferrell's background in improvisational comedy, especially in his years on SNL, where he had less than a week to come up with enough material to fill up a good portion of the show's 90 minute run time.  It's one thing to do it on what we all know is a live show made quickly, but it's quite another to bring that same approach to a major motion picture release, where we expect the comedy to be more developed, not looking like it was hastily slapped together at the last moment.

I've said this about so many films, it's starting to sound cliché, but Talladega Nights really does feel like a skit comedy idea padded out in order to fill up a full-length feature.  In order to fill up the time, they inject many side stories, off-the-wall one-joke characters (Bobby's kids names are "Walker" and "Texas Ranger"), and whatever else they could think of to take this thin premise all the way to the finish line. 

They say that in comedy, you should never let them (the audience) see you sweat.  With Talladega Nights, Ferrell often looks like he is really laboring for laughs, proverbially covered with the sheen of constant perspiration that has us fully aware that he isn't quite sure what that he's really doing is working.  In live comedy in front of an audience, he would probably be able to tell from crowd reaction when he's stumbled into something funny and run with it, but in film form, there is no feedback, as he just tosses up whatever comes to mind and hopes that the hit-to-miss ratio is good enough to make it a success overall.  When it works, it works, but the real albatross to the film's enjoyment is the fact that, for too many scenes, a great deal of energy is expended for minimal, and sometimes nonexistent humor value.

With the last Ferrell/McKay concoction, Anchorman, they initially made about a five hour film and then chopped out most of the scenes that didn't work during audience testing to form a regular length film that scored enough laughs to satisfy.  I suspect that Talladega Nights was shot with the exact same approach, as we see characters in the film that look like they should have more screen time have only a couple of lines (David Koechner, Andy Richter) and sometimes we see people that have no lines at all (Mos Def and Elvis Costello are shown but literally nothing is done with them). 

I guess my frustration as a movie lover, and not just a reviewer, is that I expect big budget films to be made with some sort of firm game plan before they start to roll film, and I also expect that I'm going to see something worth my hard-earned dollars when I go to the theater.  If I wanted to see entire scenes created on a whim, ad-libbed by the actors, I'd watch "Saturday Night Live".  Until Ferrell desires to make films with preconceived plot and jokes, instead of his current system of doing most of the "creative" work when the director yells "action", we can expect little more out of him than occasionally funny, mostly improvised moments amid barely-realized storylines and cute, goofball characters injected in desultory fashion solely in the hope that they add a new wrinkle to the piecemeal production style.

Talladega Nights is much like the sport of NASCAR itself: lots of time, money and energy is spent engaged in an activity where they just keep going around in circles.

Qwipster's rating:

©2006 Vince Leo