Review: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”

Funnier than expected, “Talladega Nights” follows in the vein of Ferrell’s “Anchorman” – a funny film but one that thinks it’s much more hilarious than it actually is. Still, there’s more right than wrong here – good actors playing some fun characters, well filmed and exciting racing scenes, and assorted comedy sketches which either fly with strength, or for the most part at least elicit a mild chuckle. The laughs are broader and slightly dumber on the surface than “Anchorman,” many gags designed to appeal to the “Dukes of Hazzard” style crowd who take it all at face value.

Yet there’s also a nice undercurrent of satire that skewers said culture stereotypes and the macho conservative world of NASCAR racing. Where it falls apart though is that there’s simply too many eggs in the basket, something rare for comedies of this type. The storyline, which follows the cliche lesson of an arrogant prick who finally learns some maturity, swaps between subplots involving a rival an effeminate French racer, an absentee father, and an always beaten down best friend whilst still throwing in set piece gags and lengthy car racing scenes.

In the muddle some characters get lost, some story points never feel comfortably resolved, and running gags become overused. There’s a lot going on here and a real determination on the part of the filmmakers to keep the laughs going and pace up, but like the unpleasant sight of Ferrell in his underwear, it can and does feel like it’s simply trying too hard (and deliberately aiming too low) for a laugh when more focus on the story would’ve helped.

Ferrell himself though is back to form. Stuck with a little too much whopping and hollering at times, the character of Ricky Bobby never really catches on like Ron Burgundy or Frank the Tank, but he’s an affable and fun lead and Ferrell gets to make good use of his assorted style of humour. It’s his co-stars however who have all the best lines with the likes of Michael Clarke Duncan, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams and Leslie Bibb all deliver good laughs with their stock characters, even if they are mishandled at times – Duncan disappearing for great lengths, Reilly given tired catch phrases, and Adams only getting any real dialogue in the last act.

Two however truly stand out, even more so than Ferrell himself – Gary Cole as Ricky’s father who gets some of the film’s best one-liners, and the ever wacky Sacha Baron Cohen (aka. Ali G, Borat) with an atrocious accent as gay French racer Jacques Gillard. Both actors are able to make silly gags about being Southern and deadbeat or French and gay into great fun (in one racing scene Cohen is literally reading “L’Etranger” whilst driving) and consistently don’t disappoint even if some of their lines don’t feel up to their talents. Their strength offsets the ubiquitous cameos from the racing world drivers which bog the film down for those not into the sport.

Those who found “Anchorman” such a hilarious laugh fest will love this as well. Those who’s taste is for more refined laughs will still get some good chuckles out of it. Whilst many times it goes for the obvious and is often inconsistent, moments of inspired genius (incl. a finale built around a run and extended kiss set to Pat Benatar) often yield hilarity and in what’s been such a weak Summer film season, it’s good to have a comedy we can truly laugh over again.