Simultaneously teasing and loving a subject doesn’t make for easy comedy, but writer-star Will Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay pull it off with good-ol’-boy good nature in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” NASCAR and its colorful melding of larger-than-life characters and action appear an ideal fit for Ferrell’s onscreen persona, translating into terrific summer B.O. as fans of the left-turn-only circuit have a movie they can call their own.
Spoofing network affiliate news programs and officious, coiffed anchorpeople proved facile and obvious a targetin Ferrell and McKay’s previous “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” but it appears the pair may be on to something in “Talladega.”
NASCAR champ Ricky Bobby, like Burgundy, is at the top of his game and so egomaniacally aware of it, he’s just asking to be brought down; he needs to have everything fall apart to realize what’s worth living for. Ricky’s collapse from glory may not quite add up when scrutinized too closely, but his scramble back to the track is flecked with enough humanity that it feels like a light ode to the idea that lives really can have second acts.
Urged on as a kid by his ne’er-do-well dad Reese (Gary Cole, magnificently crusty) with the motto, “If you’re not first, you’re last,” Ricky finds himself in the pit crew of the Dennit racing team with buddy Cal (John C. Reilly), led by pit chief Lucius (Michael Clarke Duncan). When the blase Dennit driver refuses to let racing get in the way of a bathroom break, Ricky volunteers as replacement and wins the race in an upset.
In a swift montage, Rickey’s legend takes off; he racks up wins and collects a fortune, along with obviously gold-digging trophy wife Carley (Leslie Bibb). It’s too much too soon for Ricky, who’s becoming as much of a monster as the two sons — Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell) — he and Carley are raising.
Trouble starts with the be-bop sound of Charlie Parker’s “Segment” blaring out of the jukebox in Ricky’s favorite dive — the record of choice for champ Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who enters like a Gallic hipster gunslinger and brazenly tells Ricky he will soon rule NASCAR like he’s ruled “Formula Un.” Girard throws a left hook into the movie just when it needs it, and Cohen’s insanely funny dialect is inspired.
Ricky loses his mind, imagining, he’s burned up in a crash and paralyzed from the waist down. With fear and defeat getting the best of him, Carley goes over to the enemy, leaving Ricky with the bratty boys and — inexplicably — no money. Taken in by his mom Lucy (Jane Lynch, about the only funny thesp in the cast with little to do), Ricky is made to confront the long-absent Reese, who tells his son to make fear his friend.
Girard is a comic character even Francophiles can enjoy (he peruses a Gallimard paperback edition of Camus’ “L’etranger” while racing) and he’s the worst nightmare for Ricky, a win-at-all-costs hick. But Ricky admirably overcomes his worst traits and learns to drive fast once more, even if Reese’s methods to restore his son’s nerve call for Ricky to drive with a live cougar in the passenger seat, illegal drugs under the engine and pursuing cops on his tail.
The new pic particularly laps “Anchorman” in characterization, with Ferrell and his supporting cast enjoying several scenes in which they can limn people beneath the funny banter. Ferrell takes a risk in pushing Ricky’s most noxious aspects, with the reward that he also earns audience affection by playing a man who’s humbled.
Reilly reveals Cal Jr. to be a quieter version of the ambitious Ricky, which is why a last-minute twist doesn’t work for his character. After a deceptively discreet entrance, Amy Adams’ shy assistant unleashes a stunning monologue that revs Ricky’s inner engines. Duncan, Bibb and Greg Germann as the overcompensating heir to the Dennit racing biz brings NASCAR types to life. (In fact, several NASCAR stars have cameos in the film, including Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
Not only does McKay display a strong grip on his actors and camera, he gets the grit, heat and feel of NASCAR racetracks with a near-documentary sensibility. This is perhaps the pic’s most surprising dimension, aided by Oliver Wood’s ace widescreen lensing, and CG racetrack and car crash effects. It’s enough to make Jerry Bruckheimer envious.