Against my better judgment, I’m rather fond of Will Ferrell and his absurdist humor. His unwinking deadpan delights me, and I can’t help but appreciate how unreservedly he throws himself into his roles — no shame, no apparent self-consciousness, total commitment to whatever silliness or stupidity he’s perpetrating on his amiable audience. And much of it is silliness and stupidity, of course. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is no exception.
Ferrell plays NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, whose winning streak ends when Frenchman Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) crosses over from Formula One — or Formula Un, as he puts it in his heavy, Inspector Clouseau–esque accent. The movie revels in the clash of stereotypes between good ol’ boy Ricky and the jazz-listening, macchiato-drinking, man-loving Jean. One certainly could find a way to be offended — as a Southerner or a NASCAR fan or a European or a gay man — but it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort. Both performances are affectionately good-natured rather than cruel (though Cohen can be quite cruel in his own projects), and the movie itself is too silly and frivolous to be worthy of much ire.
Besides, the movie is packed with fun performances, so much so that it’s hard to know whom to single out. Ferrell and his cowriter and director Adam McKay must be very well liked or very well respected — possibly both — because as with their previous collaboration, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, they’ve assembled a surprisingly deep cast, with even minor roles filled by strong, enthusiastic comic actors.
Character actor John C. Reilly seems to relish the opportunity to play broad in his role as Ricky’s perpetually overshadowed teammate Cal Naughton Jr. Jane Lynch, an underrated member of Christopher Guest’s de facto troupe of improvisational comedians, gives Ricky’s mom real pluck and a loveably gritty wholesomeness. Gary Cole hams it up with skeezy aplomb as Ricky’s cheerfully dissolute father. Leslie Bibb finds freshness and humor in a painfully stereotypical role (the ice-cold, gold-digging wife), and Amy Adams brings unexpected — and hilarious — fierceness to the sister cliché of the mousy overlooked woman who has the hero’s best interests at heart all along. Molly Shannon, Andy Richter, and Michael Clarke Duncan inspire laughs, too. The cast truly doesn’t have a weak link.
Aside from a few great jabs about the sponsor-crazed world of professional sports, Talladega Nights doesn’t have much to say. It’s not profound, it’s not particularly witty, but it’s marvelously goofy, unapologetically so — and that’s refreshing in its way. When Ricky encroaches upon Jean’s lead at the final climactic race, Cohen delivers one of my favorite lines: “Now the matador will dance with the blind shoemaker,” he mutters eagerly, full of competitive energy, and … what? What does that even mean? Nothing, of course, nothing at all. It’s completely random, not a punch line but funny in its utter randomness and the relish with which Cohen chews the words (which he might well have improvised — there’s a lot of that going on here). Far too many contemporary American comedies feel factory-built, but Ferrell’s Talladega Nights is bizarrely organic and fresh — not always to my taste, but at least it has a taste, a mutant pungency all its own.