Monday, January 08, 2007

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

"How could this possibly be bad?" was my reaction when I first caught wind of Talladega Nights. "It's Will Ferrell making fun of southern people!"
And, just as I suspected, Will Ferrell making fun of southern people is, indeed, quite funny. It's a slam dunk, right? Will Ferrell is the brightest light to come out of Saturday Night Live in a while, and southern people are notoriously easy to make fun of.
And yet, I'm underwhelmed.
Talladega Nights starts out well enough. After some background scenes showing Ricky Bobby's birth, a fateful day in his childhood, and his first stint as a driver, we get to the real meat of the story: Ricky Bobby ruling the road in NASCAR, and all of the comedy that comes along with that. The comedy culminates in a series of ads, in which Ricky Bobby hawks a Jackhawk 9000 hunting knife ("Available at Wal-Mart"), Maypax: the offical tampon of NASCAR ("When you work on your mysterious lady-part stuff, you should have the right tools too"), and Big Red ("I'm Ricky Bobby. If you don't chew Big Red gum, then f*** you.") That's followed by a five minute long scene comprised mainly of Ricky Bobby saying a very awkward grace, which is funny enough, but it marks the moment where the filmmakers start to lay off the humor accelerator and try to tell a story.
You see, Ricky Bobby's NASCAR dominance is threatened when Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) joins the circuit. Girard is gay and French--in other words, the antithesis of the American South--and his arrival seems as though it's about to start a perfect rivalry: American impudence, bigotry, and xenophobia vs. flamboyant French immodesty.
Unfortunately, this rivalry--and the satire it promises--never really has a chance to develop, because in Girard's and Ricky Bobby's first race together, Ricky Bobby wipes out.
Now, up to this point, we've seen roughly 40 minutes of movie, and it's all been pretty solid. But the next 50 minutes or so--between the crash and Ricky Bobby's inevitable comeback--drag just a bit. It's basically 50 minutes of Ricky Bobby rehab, and while parts of it are indeed amusing, I found myself losing interest.
Unfortunately, this disinterest sours the triumphant ending just a bit. See, it's during that 50 minutes--in which Ricky Bobby hits his lowest before picking himself up again--that we realize that we really don't care all that much about him. We're interested, sure, and we're happy for him when he wins in the end. But we don't really care.
And that, unfortunately, is the element that keeps a funny movie from being an excellent movie. It's a common problem for those who have cut their teeth in sketch comedy: When you're used a 5-minute character arc, it's hard to get used to into a 2-hour character arc. When you only have 5 minutes, it pays to start with a burst of energy and to make your characters simple. When you have two hours, however, the same strategy doesn't always work.
But that's only a complaint about the movie taken as a whole. Taken piecemeal, there's much that's very funny about it. I'd say 15 to 20 laugh-out-loud moments total, with 2 or 3 of those being solid belly laughs. Much of the credit there goes to a really top-notch cast. Ferrell and Baron Cohen both do well, but the acting honors in this movie really belong to John C. Reilly as Ricky Bobby's best bud Cal Naughton Jr. Reilly manages to be just as funny as Ferrell without ever seeming to overact. There's a long list of talented actors in Talladega Nights: Jane Swift as Ricky Bobby's mother, Michael Clarke Duncan as his pit crew chief, Gary Cole as his father, Molly Shannon as his boss' wife, Amy Adams as his secretary-turned-girlfriend. Even some of the relative unknowns turn in solid performances, such as Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell as his sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, respectively.
Yeah, it's certainly a funny movie filled with funny people, which I suppose is what you pay for. But the lack of cohesiveness and proper pacing means Talladega Nights places no higher than a 7.

Disclaimer: I watched the unrated DVD version, which is 14 minutes longer than the theatrical version. It might be that the aforementioned pacing issues weren't a problem in the theatrical version, but as the DVD only allows me to watch the longer, unrated version, I guess I'll never know.


Your Racist Friend said...

Yeah, I watched this a few weeks ago, and it drags like crazy. The commercial outtakes on the DVD are a hell of a lot funnier than the movie itself. And the kids are pretty awesome.

"I'll come at you like a spider monkey!"

Stormy Pinkness said...

When this movie came out, it seemed to me that it would be just like every other Will Ferrell comedy, which for some reason I am not a fan of. Because of that I avoided seeing the film. Thanking for reinforcing my opinion that it was not a film that REALLY needed to be seen.

Particle Man said...

not so fast, SP. Will Ferrell doesn't do the same movie every time. i just saw Melinda & Melinda, which starred Will Ferrell in an ensemble cast. he was surprisingly restrained and calm, but still the funniest part of the movie. to be fair, most Will Ferrell comedies are of the type that you implied. i cite Night at the Roxbury, Elf, and Kicking and Screaming for starters. but don't universally dismiss movies that star him, because he might surprise you. i didn't see it, but i understands he didn't give a typical Ferrell performance in Stranger Than Fiction.

Your Racist Friend said...

Dude, do not hate on ELF. Just because you didn't find it all that funny, doesn't mean a lot of people didn't. It was a big sleeper, and did very well at the box-office and on video. And to put things in perspective for all you haters out there, how's he doing compared to Adam Sandler? Rob Schneider? Chris Kattan?

Particle Man said...

i'm not "hating" on Elf, as it were. i actually thought it was pretty cute, though not nearly as funny as some other people seem to think. i'm merely saying that it's a "Ferrellized" movie, so to speak. Jon Favreau did a decent job of reining him in, but he was definitely "Will Ferrell on 11."

wait a sec, this is sounding a lot like my review of Elf a few months ago...