Crash Test Dummy
To compare the offerings of former Saturday Night Live collaborators Will Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and the new Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, to the oeuvres of Adam Sandler or the Farrelly brothers, the closest purveyors of aim-high-shoot-lowbrow shtick in the googolplex, would slight those films — they’re already slight to the point of being intangible. And to lump them in with the likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin diminishes the latter’s achievement as the lone gross-out comedy to possess surprising emotional heft.
So where does that leave Ferrell and McKay? Probably somewhere in the 1930s, as spiritual heirs to the throne abandoned by the Marx Brothers and lesser vaudevillians who transitioned from stage to screen just as movies were getting moving. The films of Ferrell and McKay play like potty-mouthed throwbacks to the anarchic slapshtick of Groucho, Chico and Harpo. Anchorman played especially true to form: Four men run amok in a surreal world in which people break into song for no reason and no one around them comments.
Talladega Nights might as well be titled A Day at the Races. Like Anchorman, with which it shares essential elements (a celebrity humiliated and redeemed and an obsession with Ferrell’s pale paunch), Ferrell and McKay’s latest has just enough story to justify being labeled a narrative. But the tale of Ricky Bobby (Ferrell, of course), an abandoned kid who grows up to be a famous NASCAR driver, is beside the point. So beside the point. Like, in another movie in another movie theater in another state beside the point.
There are two kinds of scenes in Talladega Nights: short segments that advance the storyline, and prolonged sequences in which Ferrell and/or John C. Reilly (as Ricky’s best friend) and/or Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ricky’s rival, French fancy boy Jean Girard) make shit up and crack each other up. There’s no difference between the movie and the end-credit outtakes.
Ferrell may be no Groucho Marx — and McKay is no George Kaufman — but, like his predecessor, he works best in projects constructed around him. Just when it appeared he was content to be squandered in ill-fitting disasters (Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched, Curious George, Winter Passing), he reminds the audience why he matters: because he’s the loudest, driest and most fearless comic actor working. Once more, he strips down to his undies and gallops around like a mental patient, as he did in the career-making Old School, but here it goes on and on an on and on, becoming its own subplot. He only imagines the flames he claims are engulfing him; this guy’s closer to unhinged than unbridled.
The movie exists only until the laughter dies down and the theater lights come up. It’s that elusive — the jokes can’t withstand someone else retelling them because they’re funny only coming from Ferrell or Cohen, who plays Jean Girard like Borat with a speech impediment and a hard-on for a bearded Andy Richter. (Cohen is the Chico to Ferrell’s Groucho — a very gay Chico, but still.)
But McKay and Ferrell are smart enough to imbue this shallow nonsense with some wink-wink depth — or at least try. (Face it: Anchorman works best in 15-minute cable-TV increments.) That’s why Amy Adams (Junebug) is here as Ricky’s personal assistant and eventual inspiration and love interest. That’s why deadpan whizzes Gary Cole and Jane Lynch are here are Ricky’s parents. That’s why Reilly’s here as the best friend who betrays his pal without knowing how or why. It doesn’t mean anything, the tale of woe and whoa, but it’s nice to know there’s an effort being made to keep the car on the track. Because without the chassis, you’re just spinning your wheels.