Wonder Boy

Washington City Paper | August 4, 2006
A child in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is also influenced by a dubiously go-get-’em father: “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” Reese Bobby tells his son, Ricky, who was born in a speeding car. He shares this wisdom when he gets kicked out of Ricky’s school on Career Day, after years of absence. And then he disappears on Ricky again.

Even though the no-good, no-job Reese (Gary Cole) doesn’t even remember giving this advice during a reunion with a grown Ricky (Will Ferrell)—“That don’t even make sense. You could be second, you could be third...”—it doesn’t really matter. Ricky already has had a love of speed and hunger to win implanted in what serves as his brain. He becomes a member of a NASCAR pit crew, and when the opportunity comes up, midrace, to substitute for a lazy driver, the Ballad begins. (Actually, it begins with a quote about America’s need for “hot, nasty, badass speed”—attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Directed by Adam McKay and co-written by McKay and Ferrell—the same matchup responsible for 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy—Talladega Nights exists mainly to 1) get Ferrell back on, uh, track (sorry) after his roles in the awful Bewitched and Kicking & Screaming and 2) make fun of white-trash NASCAR lovers. The premise is pretty thin, but the filmmakers get a fair amount of, um, mileage (sorry again) out of it. Ricky wins that first race and becomes the It driver, marrying a glaringly blond trophy wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), naming their two mouthy boys Walker and Texas Ranger, and staying true to his grade-school best friend, Cal (a hick-puppyish John C. Reilly), all while lovin’ America.

It doesn’t take long for Talladega Nights to get the stereotypes of its target out of the way: Ricky’s car is sponsored by Wonder Bread, his family eats a buffet of fast food every night, Skynyrd’s king, foreigners are weird, etc. The subject’s a softball, but Ferrell’s vaguely Dubya-accented shtick makes it work for a while, whether Ricky is timidly giving his first on-the-track interview (the way his hands gravitate toward his face even though the interviewer instructs him to put them down) or later brashly making commercials for any and all products (“I’m Ricky Bobby, and if you don’t chew Big Red, then fuck you”). Among the broadness are a couple of subtler jokes, such as Ricky’s answer to the question of why his rival, the French Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G), came here: “Public schools? The health-care system?” But mostly, it’s all beer and balls.

A long segment in which Ricky loses his touch lags, saved only by the 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Jane Lynch as Ricky’s mother and Junebug’s Amy Adams, once again proving she can deliver mouthsful of dialogue with ardent and impressive speed, as Susan, Ricky’s manager and eventual love interest. Unlike Anchorman, these blander moments suffer from a lack of cameos from the usual Ferrell clan of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Steve Carell (though perhaps “I love lamp” isn’t the kind of dumbness they were going for here). After descending from full-on laughs to forced giggles, however, Ferrell and McKay successfully resuscitate the audience with never-fail outtakes that should leave you happier than a celebration dinner at Applebee’s.

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