I'm not a NASCAR fan, and though it runs smack through my town, I don't even get my kicks on Route 66. But I am a fan of Will Ferrell. I thought he was hilarious in "Elf" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," I felt his comic sensibilities were perfect in "Curious George," and it impressed the heck out of me that he took smaller roles in films like "The Producers" and made them memorable. I'll remember this film for quite a while, too.
Ferrell co-wrote "Talladega Nights" with director Adam McKay, who previously collaborated with him on "Anchorman." Why NASCAR this time? Out of curiosity, I looked up the Talladega Superspeedway near Birmingham, Alabama, where much of the movie was shot (the rest was filmed at the North Carolina Speedway). It shocked me to learn that the Talladega Superspeedway has 143,000 seats, plus room for thousands more in a 212-acre infield. By comparison, the largest major league ballpark is New York's Shea Stadium, which seats a mere 57,300, and the largest NFL stadium is FedEx Field in Washington, D.C., which only accommodates some 80,000.
In other words, NASCAR is huge, and since nobody had done a film about the circuit, it was ripe for a Friar's Club-style roasting. As it turns out, the NASCAR subculture is so American than it makes Mom and apple pie look like cheap imports. And "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is a laugh-out-loud film that manages to satirize the NASCAR culture while still retaining an apparent fondness for the drivers, their crews, and the rabid fans. Maybe that's why "Talladega Nights" had the full blessing and cooperation of NASCAR. It pokes fun of the characters, not the sport or the fans who love to watch the races and the wrecks.
It's also more than a Will Ferrell vehicle. Oh, sure, Ferrell is in most of the scenes, but playing opposite different people, he feels like half of a rotating comedy team. Gary Cole ("The Brady Bunch Movie"), for example, is a riot as Ricky Bobby's father, a self-professed semi-professional race car driver and an amateur tattoo artist. He has some very funny scenes with Ferrell later in the film, but he first turns up on Dad's day at the boy's school 15 years earlier, peeling out in the school parking lot after telling his son not to listen to his loser teacher. "If you ain't first, you're last," he tells Ricky Bobby, and that impresses the boy so much that he turns into a kamikaze driver.
Like the squire in "A Knight's Tale," Ricky Bobby gets his chance when the big guy he's working for goes down. The sponsor decides to go with ANYONE on crew besides the lollygagging lead driver, and Ricky Bobby steps up, goes ballistic, and endears himself to fans for his win-or-crash approach to racing. The scenes with John C. Reilly, who plays Ricky Bobby's childhood friend and the number two driver on the Wonder Bread team, are a real hoot. You find yourself looking back and forth to each of them as they play a couple of guys who aren't that bright and who embrace redneck culture like born-again country music fans. Their expressions and in-character ramblings are as funny as anything you'll see in a character comedy, and Reilly is just as good as Ferrell. So, for that matter, is Leslie Bibb, who plays Carley, Ricky Bobby's "smokin' hot wife" who's all about the money. She plays off Ferrell as well as Gracie Allen did with her husband, George Burns, only they're all so darned tongue-in-cheek that it's hard to tell who's the straight man and who's the cut-up.
Even the boys who play the couple's offspring, Walker and Texas Ranger, are riotous in their roles. Then again, what kid wouldn't love the chance to threaten Grandpa, sass their parents, swear like sailors, and destroy things for sport? But things really climax for Ricky Bobby when he's in a destructive crash, one which, to borrow a word from "Elf," is gynormous. The toast of NASCAR becomes toast, and while Ricky Bobby is in the hospital and rehab, a few things change. He loses Carley to his best friend, and he loses the spotlight to a gay French driver (Sacha Baron Cohen). But then his mantra kicks in, and Ricky Bobby is ready to kick some ass again. En route to a "Ben-Hur" style finish, he and his NASCAR cronies also manage to provide a lot of laughs.
The unrated/uncut version offers 13 minutes of footage not seen in the theatrical release, but those minutes neither stand out nor make the film seem padded. Though "Talladega Nights" comes in at just a little over 120 minutes, it's the kind of film you'd just as soon see race a little longer, and those bonus minutes will no doubt be appreciated by fans.
Mastered in High Definition and presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Talladega Nights" looks very good on a standard disc. There's a slight graininess that turns up especially in brightly lit scenes, but for the most part the definition is good, and the colors are bright and rich. Some releases these days look a little rough compared to the HD discs, but that's not the case here.
The audio is also pretty decent. Soundtrack options are English or French Dolby Digital 5.1, and there's a full-sounding, resonant bass that helps those engines sputter and roar across your TV room, and plenty of across-the-speaker movement to make those rollover crashes sound as if they're too close for comfort. Subtitles are in English and French.
I don't "get" in-character bonus features. Sure, in short bits and done well they can feel like a guest spot at a comedy club, but an entire commentary track that's a tongue-in-cheek put-on? That's pretty much what you get here, with the filmmakers pulling everyone's legs and having a little fun with the film's $145 million budget. With dead seriousness they'll point to an extra in the back and say it's Sean Penn, and it took three million to get him for that shot, but it was worth it. You look and you look but see that, of course, it's not Penn, but that's the kind of shenanigans they pull. Other times one of them will deadpan that they were the last holdout to insist on using asbestos for all the scenes, explain that for one scene they moved the entire production company to Ecuador to shoot, or confess that "in the course of this film, I changed religions four times." It's the kind of thing that might have worked in small measure, but it gets a little pointless (and isn't all that funny) strung out over the course of the full movie.
Much better are the nine deleted scenes, the longest of which shows Ricky Bobby confronting Cal and Carley. You'll wish they had left that one in, it's so funny. There's also a dumb outtake with Ricky Bobby trying to fart phrases and songs, though I'm sure some might think that the plum of the bunch. A better-than-average gag reel is included, along with a few in-character Ricky Bobby and Cal commentaries and promo PSAs. For race fans, there's bonus race car footage. But the extras that I enjoyed the most, aside from the deleted scenes, were three in-character interviews and a return trip to Talladega by Ferrell, who gets to tell everybody to start their engines. A lot of drivers appear, but with no subscript to identify them you'd have to be a NASCAR fan to know who they were. Ricky Bobby, Ferrell tells them, was based on "no one and everyone."
Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are turning out to be quite the comic duo, and you can't help but wonder what they'll skewer next. Their inclinations are toward character comedies that satirize an entire culture, so the next film could be about anything. But a lion's share of the credit has to go to the casting director. Though this is Will Ferrell's vehicle, it's a bright and funny ensemble cast that makes it fun.