"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" opens with an outrageous quote made all the more absurd when it purports to have been said by Eleanor Roosevelt. It's the funniest moment of the film, and nary a frame of actual footage has yet been glimpsed. From there, it's all downhill for writer-director Adam McKay and actor-cowriter Will Ferrell, who last teamed up in 2004 for the tonally identical, similarly scattershot "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
." This latest movie takes a comedic page from serious biopics and a one-note ideaFerrell as a NASCAR racerbut doesn't have the focus or drive to bring it home. More often than not, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" crashes and burns as it tries to garner laughs out of poorly edited and decidedly threadbare material.
The son of now-estranged parentsdoting mother Lucy (Jane Lynch) and deadbeat father Reese (Gary Cole)who conceived of him in a roadside cafe bathroom, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) grows up to be a professional NASCAR competitor at the top of his game. As conceited and fame-hungry as he is, Ricky would seem to have it allloads of money, great success, an adoring best friend and second-banana racer Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly), a beautiful trophy wife Carley (Leslie Bibb), and two sons named Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell). In an instant, almost all of it is taken away from him following a nasty car wreck that leaves him too psychologically scarred to race. Carley, a golddigger determined to never have to work, promptly divorces Ricky, marries Cal, and takes his mansion. Stuck living back at home with his mother, it will take a miracle for Ricky to get back in the driver's seat and reclaim the NASCAR title he has worked his whole life for.
"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is a threadbare comedy with a sorry hit-to-miss laugh ratio of about 1-to-25. The gags are thrown the audience's way at a swift rate, but the majority of them are embarrassingly amateurish and predictable rather than clever. There are, of course, a few humdingerswhen Carley's father chastises Walker and Texas Ranger for being mouthy and rude, she replies, "If we'd have wanted them to be sissies, we would have named them Dr. Quinn and Medicine Woman"but they are few and far between.
The rest of the running time is made up of long dry spots, exaggerated characterizations straight out of a sketch show, and a plastic storyline made all the more insufferably artificial by a lead character who is no more likable or worthy of triumph than the "bad guys" that surround him. In "Anchorman
," Ron Burgundy was like Ricky Bobby in his steadfast self-absorption, but little by little grew as a person. In comparison, if Ricky turns into a better man by the end, his transformation is neither well conveyed nor believably fashioned. Director Adam McKay tries to explain this away by making him the victim of a father who abandoned him as a baby and returns years later just as unreliable as he ever was, but that doesn't exactly help to make Ricky Bobby an ingratiating presence.
The cast is solid, but arguably too good for the wasted parts they receive. Will Ferrell (2005's "Bewitched
") leads the way as the title character, but his same old shtick has begun to repeat itself to the point of nausea. He mugs his way through each scene and elicits more groans than deserved chuckles from his over-the-top portrayal. Great character actor John C. Reilly (2006's "A Prairie Home Companion
") is forgettable as Ricky's underappreciated pal Cal. Leslie Bibb (2000's "The Skulls
") has got the shallow role of Carley down patthere's a sly moment where she tearfully tells the doctor she is ready to pull the plug on Ricky, despite him not even being in critical conditionbut there is hardly any signs of humanity behind her backstabbing exterior. As Ricky's mousy-assistant-turn-love-interest Susan, Amy Adams (recent Oscar nominee for 2005's "Junebug
") is criminally underutilized. The invaluable Molly Shannon (2006's "Little Man
") gets some cute moments as the boozy wife of team owner Larry Dennit, Jr. (Greg Germann). And finally, Sacha Baron Cohen (2005's "Madagascar
") brings a quirky sniveling originality to Jean Girard, Ricky's very French and very gay top competitor.
Comedy is a tricky genre to get right. Not only does the writing have to be sharp, but the timing has to be perfect in order for the jokes to work their intended magic. It also helps that the story and characters carry the humor along with a core rooting interest in how things are going to play out. "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" rarely succeeds at any of these things. For a film about NASCAReven one that isn't supposed to be taken seriouslythe racing sequences are confusingly pieced together to the point of incomprehensibility, switching between exterior shots of cars going around the track with close-ups of drivers that never actually look like they're driving. Thus, the viewer not only doesn't care about Ricky Bobby, but any tension these scenes might have otherwise had is muted by poor editing.
Will Ferrell is a funny fellowlook no further than his years of work on "Saturday Night Live" and in such charmers as 2003's "Elf
"but he isn't funny here and frequently seems to be stretching to make the lame material appear better than it is. He gives it a fighting try, but might as well not have. "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is a hopelessly routine and vapid misfire.