Chevy Chase. Eddie Murphy. Mike Myers. Adam Sandler. Like Will Ferrell, they honed their skills on “Saturday Night Live.” Like Ferrell, they eventually bid farewell to the late night skit comedy show to seek greater prominence among the Hollywood elite making big screen comedies.
Some succeeded, some failed. With “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” Ferrell proves his career is on the road to enduring success.
To date, Ferrell’s films have ranged from fair to fine to first-rate. While “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” fails to induce the side-splitting hilarity of 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” it outshines its predecessor in terms of developing a coherent storyline.
Ferrell portrays NASCAR luminary Ricky Bobby, a dim racecar driver born with a need for speed. Unlike “Anchorman” which
sardonically and mercilessly jabbed at television news media, “Talladega” has no intention of belittling NASCAR fans by propping up overblown stereotypes. Instead, Ferrell – who co-wrote the screenplay – chose to gently parody the racing subculture with a conspicuous focus on the macho mentality of the drivers.
As with any movie featuring an SNL alumnus, the first fear is that the film will be nothing more than a protracted skit that would have been better suited to the small screen. One discerning factor identifies such cinematic bombs from the onset: They tend to showcase a single well-developed star surrounded by uninteresting, two-dimensional supporting characters. Fortunately, “Talladega,” features a strong cast of players who not only contribute to the movie’s best moments – they are singularly responsible for many of them.
First and foremost, John C. Reilly plays Bobby’s equally dense best friend and fellow racer Cal Naughton Jr. Bobby takes the friendship for granted, exploiting his teammate without ever offering him a moment in the limelight. Reilly depicts his character’s growing dissatisfaction with restless subtlety making the eventual reversal of fortune all the more uproarious.
Bobby’s father Reese (Gary Cole), long absent from his son’s life, returns when the dethroned driver needs inspiration. Though limited in screen time, Cole nails every one of his punch lines and manages to make likable this irresponsible, truant parent role that in other hands may have seemed offensive.
Bobby’s nemesis takes the form of French, Camus-reading Formula One racer Jean Girard, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. The overcooked accent alone makes this character an asset to the production.
Rounding out the cast are heavy hitters including Michael Clarke Duncan as Lucius Washington, Jane Lynch as Bobby’s mother, Leslie Bibb as Carley Bobby, Amy Adams as Susan and another former SNL cast member, Molly Shannon as Mrs. Dennit. It’s the entire troupe that elevates this movie from mediocrity to distinction.
When Ferrell’s larger-than-life comedic abilities fall short, the ensemble cast salvages the scene. “Talladega Nights” shines brightest during extended group scenes, such as the lengthy exchange at the dinner table over Bobby’s preference to give thanks to baby Jesus instead of the grownup Jesus. Another example takes place as Bobby’s friends try to convince him he’s not paralyzed and culminates in a knife-in-the-leg gag that pays silent homage to “Young Frankenstein.”
“Talladega Nights” may not be what audiences expect from the zany Ferrell who made theaters roar with laughter as Ron Burgundy or as Buddy in “Elf,” or even as Mugatu in “Zoolander.” Still, the movie wins over viewers with smart humor, benign parody and an endearing storyline skillfully executed by an excellent cast.