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"TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY"
(2006) (Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A NASCAR racer must contend with his fall from the top of the sport at the hands of a foreign driver.
PLOT:
Ricky Bobby (WILL FERRELL) has always wanted to go fast -- ever since being born to Reese (GARY COLE) and Lucy (JANE LYNCH) -- and can do so whenever he wants now that he's a NASCAR champion driving for owner Larry Dennit, Jr. (GREG GERMANN) and his perpetually inebriated wife Mrs. Dennit (MOLLY SHANNON).

With his lifelong friend and racing partner Cal Naughton, Jr. (JOHN C. REILLY) always making sure he wins the race under the watchful eye of team captain Lucius Washington (MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN), Ricky Bobby is rich beyond his dreams. He also has a beautiful trophy wife, Carley (LESLIE BIBB), a loyal assistant in Susan (AMY ADAMS), and two foul-mouthed kids, Walker (HOUSTON TUMLIN) and Texas Ranger (GRAYSON RUSSELL), of whom he couldn't be more proud.

However, Ricky is still haunted by the fact that Reese is a deadbeat and long-estranged dad, and he doesn't seem to notice that Cal is getting tired of always helping him win, but never getting to do so himself. But it's the arrival of pretentious, gay French Formula One driver Jean Girard (SACHA BARON COHEN) that turns the champion's career and life upside down.

Following a bad accident, Ricky Bobby loses his spot as Dennit's number one driver, as well as his career and thus his wife. From that point on, he must try to regain his fearlessness and love of driving fast if he wants to get back into the winner's circle.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I have no idea where the phrase "You can't have your cake and eat it too" came from, but in today's world of don't offend anyone, political correctness, there are plenty of people trying to do just that. And that's particularly true of many comedians who play it fairly safe with their material, delivering scathing jokes with a bit of the old "wink, wink, nudge nudge" disclaimer that shows they're just joshing, but not completely. What it means is they don't have the backbone (and some would say a certain lower part of the male anatomy) to stand by their convictions and say what they really think.

While clearly not operating from anything approaching a scathing mindset, the filmmakers responsible for "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" are trying to do a little of that incompatible cake eating and conservation. The film wants to make fun of all things NASCAR, but writer/director Adam McKay and co-writer/star Will Ferrell obviously don't want to cut off the effort's cinematic nose to spite its face. In other words, they don't want to alienate that sport's fans who could potentially make up a significant chunk of their viewing audience.

Accordingly, and without any sort of real traction, this spoof of that racing industry ends up skidding all over the track, occasionally delivering some funny moments, but the misfires clearly outnumber the hits. Considering that it's helmed by the same filmmakers and star involved in 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," perhaps it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the plot gist is rather identical, with just the names and professions changed.

Both feature men at the top of their game who get bumped off by a rival brought in by their boss. They then go through the doldrums of no longer being number one before pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and clawing their way back into the limelight. Of course, Farrell isn't exactly known for picking projects featuring brilliant scripts. Instead, they're often just rough templates upon which he gets to do his usual, anything goes brand of humor that proves he has no sense of shame (which can be both good and bad in terms of the results).

Here, he plays the title character, a NASCAR champion who's religious, patriotic, and a bit dim, with a blonde bombshell wife, redneck kids (albeit with some rather funny names) and a huge following. Those elements fall into the above "cake" category in that the film is poking fun at all of that, but without going so far as to offend anyone.

Thus, we're subjected to long bits of dinnertime prayer to Jesus as envisioned by various characters (the title one being fixated on the baby version), all of the product placement, and views of Ferrell running around the track in his just his shoes, helmet and underwear (thinking he's on fire).

The actor's diehard fans will probably enjoy the decidedly juvenile bits. Some are undeniable funny or least amusing (particularly a scene involving Michael Clarke Duncan, some knives, and Ricky Bobby's leg). Yet, the southern drawl he evokes reminded me a bit too much of his former George Bush impersonation, and once you've seen the "Saturday Night Live" alum in the buff (in "Old School"), the "tighty-whities" moments don't provide as much comedic punch as intended.

Which pretty much holds true for the overall film. Beyond the spoofing of all the fine details, there's the storyline featuring Sacha Baron Cohen as an elite, French Formula One driver who creates the aforementioned downfall (with the actor's performance being the best thing the film has to offer). Another involves Gary Cole as the protagonist's deadbeat and long-estranged father (with the script letting down the character actor who can be quite funny with the right material -- see "Office Space" or "The Brady Bunch" movies for examples), and a third deals with romance (or the lack thereof).

One half of that revolves around Ricky Bobby's wife (Leslie Bibb) running off with his best friend and racing partner (John C. Reilly), and the other has him finally getting involved with his assistant (Amy Adams). Unfortunately, both sides of that romantic material aren't terribly inspired, resulting in few genuine laughs when some abundant potential is present (particularly regarding the trophy wife from both sides of such a relationship).

There are times when you can sense that the filmmakers really wanted to let loose with the jokes (such as with the foul-mouthed, undisciplined kids and some digs at defense contractors), but ending up taking their feet off the accelerator. The result, like much of the film, is that the material never gets out of second gear (these kids are no bad news bears) or simply glides over its target without even leaving a scrape. The Halliburton material comes out of the blue and never amounts to anything, particularly laughs, which also holds true regarding a running gag featuring Molly Shannon playing a perpetually inebriated wife of the big racing boss.

Not quite a full-out spoof like the "Airplane" or "Naked Gun" films, and lacking the gas, horsepower and/or courage to eat its cake and not care where the crumbs may fall, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" ends up imitating its subject sport. It makes lots of noise and goes really fast, but ultimately just circles its material and thus never really gets anywhere. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed July 31, 2006 / Posted August 4, 2006


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