“Talladega Nights”: Rednecks, start yer engines
The yellow flag is out for Will Ferrell. After rising to become one of the most successful “Saturday Night Live” alums, Ferrell’s acting choices have shown a unique blend of comic versatility and straight flexibility. But opinions of Ferrell aside, your reaction to his latest “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” will best be determined by the level of humor you prefer.
For many of his fans, Ferrell’s latest will be a major step backward, or more accurately, downward.
Reuniting with writer/director Adam Mckay, with whom he collaborated to make the consistently inventive and hilarious “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” Ferrell turns the sophistication way down to a sub-Adam Sandler level to make a dumb is as dumb does satire of the NASCAR circuit.
Well, it’s an attempt at satire, anyway.
Yes, there is a fine line between wickedly subtle satire that uses wit to go for the comic jugular– “Anchorman”– and the kind of easy target, below the belt, redneck banality that “Talladega” wallows in. If the beat-a-joke-to-death rhythm of the variety found on the current generation of “SNL” revs your engine, then “Talladega” might wind up in your winner’s circle.
As a young boy Ricky is inspired by his drunken absentee Dad (played to perfect slovenly perfection by Gary Cole). Dad’s motto is, “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” and Ricky eventually turns his love for speed into a gig in a NASCAR pit crew. When he gets his opportunity to drive, he makes the best of it and becomes a champion along with his faithful wingman Cal (John C. Reilly), in a role just about anyone could play.
Ricky is “blessed” with a knockout trailer trash wife (Leslie Bibb), and two potty-mouthed children who love their dad. However, they have no qualms about verbally abusing their grandpa in one of the most unapologetically mean-spirited scenes played for laughs in recent memory.
The film throws easy punches at the obvious, tired targets of humor: drugs, old people, Ferrell’s paunch, religion, countless product placements, and southern good ‘ol boy ignorance. But “Talladega Nights” doesn’t have the courage or originality to truly satirize the subject material. It says a lot about the sketchy writing that an actor who exudes charisma like Ferrell provokes so little empathy from even his most ardent fans.
Ferrell is, as always, great on his feet– particularly because the film feels improvised– and there are a few funny scenes. One involves a knife in a hospital, the other a cougar in a Chevelle, and the other the encouragement by one of the best-used performers in the film, Amy Adams (“Junebug”). Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a French driver is repetitive, forced, and significantly less inspired than his popular “Ali G” TV antics.
Despite some well-shot racing sequences, and the presence of a $20 million actor, “Talladega Nights” feels cheap and dirty. But the folks who should be the most offended by this Southern Fried garbage will most likely make the film a huge hit.
Y’all have been warned.
PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, drug references, and brief comic violence.