Just as you didn't really have to be a fan of TV news to appreciate Anchorman, you needn't have seen a NASCAR race to get into Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which mostly takes place in the daytime and is much more rock 'n' roll than ballad.
It would help, though, if you enjoy Will Ferrell's special style of overacting and bringing the most raucous aspects of humor to the fore. Ferrell is, at times, drowned out by the sights and sounds and insanity of the racing going on around him here, but his character, Ricky Bobby -- born in the back seat of a speeding car, living by the mantra "I wanna go fast" -- stands tall, and holds the attention of all viewers. He is one of Ferrell's best characters to date, and the film's clever script -- which he co-wrote -- is the best thing yet for showing off his talents.
The film jumps out of the gate with some background info on Ricky -- adoring mom, drunk daddy who abandons them -- and catches up with Ricky as an adult, when he's a member of the pit crew for a losing race team at the Talladega Superspeedway, the largest track on the NASCAR circuit.
Director Adam McKay secured permission to shoot on actual tracks during real races among crowds of some 200,000 rabid fans. Noise and confusion are everywhere, and the film's editing is often as fast as the cars going round and round and the story of Ricky Bobby's rise and fall.
He's in one of those right time-right place situations when he gets the call: In the middle of a race, a driver (director Adam McKay) quits, and Ricky jumps in to get the car to the finish line. Soon he's a regular driver, as is his pit crew pal, Cal (John C. Reilly, matching Ferrell's performance with a strong comic one of his own).
And soon, Ricky's at the top, with his face on magazine covers and in ad campaigns, a giant house, a hot wife (Leslie Bibb), two (horrible) little boys and gobs of money. Everything's good for Ricky Bobby. In one of the movie's side plots, Cal is stuck, alas, in second-banana mode.
The main story, though, is about the arrival in town of a new gunslinger, er, driver: Jean Girard, the famous Formula One driver. Showing up at the local racing bar, he replaces the usual jukebox fare, Lynyrd Skynyrd, with some smooth Euro jazz. This does not sit well with the NASCAR crowd, but it's a perfect prelude to Girard's challenge to "Monsieur" Bobby: "I have come here to defeat you," he announces, in the thickest of French accents. As played by British actor Sacha Baron Cohen (Da Ali G Show), Girard is an example of comic-villain perfection. He's very French, very gay -- and, even at 200 mph, very relaxed.
But if the Bobby-Jean rivalry is the main story, then this film has three main stories. In one of the other two, Ricky Bobby is in an accident (a spectacularly photographed and terrifying one) and develops cases of fear of speed and "psychosomatic paralysis." In another, his daddy (Gary Cole) returns after many years with a desire to help his son beat that fear and bring him, literally, back to speed. That daddy accomplishes this with a rather unconventional approach makes for some comic gems of scenes. Cole, who has been superb as the vice president in The West Wing, a boss from hell in Office Space and Mike Brady in the two Brady Bunch movies, is a regular scene-stealer here.
But nobody and nothing is going to take anything away from Ferrell and the script. His Ricky Bobby is a blockhead, but a passionate one. And Ferrell brings comic over-emotionalism to new heights. The script, filled with well-crafted, stretched-out sight gags and terrific payoffs, features such verbal moments as Ricky blurting out that one of his heroes is "that little Asian guy who eats all those hotdogs," and Girard dramatically offering up the line, "And now the matador shall dance with the blind shoemaker."
Talladega Nights concludes, as all films in this genre must, with "the big race." And while it captures the excitement and danger of NASCAR, it never lets up from busting loose with full-speed comedy.
TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY; Rated PG-13; Directed by Adam McKay; Starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole