by Mel Valentin
Will Ferrell ("Kicking and Screaming," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Elf," "Old School") is back. Did you miss? Be honest, you probably didn’t know he’d been off screen for the better part of a year. Doesn’t seem that long ago that Ferrell was starting to match fellow comedian Ben Stiller with multiple appearances a year. Luckily, Ferrell seems to have slowed down somewhat, but we’ll see Ferrell in two films in almost as many months, first "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" and later this year, "Stranger Than Fiction," a promising meta-fictional comedy co-starring Emma Thompson and directed by Marc Foster ("Finding Neverland," "Monster’s Ball"). Sound familiar? It should, as it sounds remarkably like what Jim Carrey attempted to do with "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" two years ago.But hey, this is a review of Ferrell’s latest team-up with his Anchorman co-writer Adam McKay, not an examination of whether Ferrell has overexposed himself to Stiller-like proportions (he hasn’t, at least not yet). Building on his hyperactive, semi-clueless, oversized man-child persona that he first played on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell has transitioned smoothly to A-list comedian/actor. The quality of his work as writer or actor matters less, significantly less, than whether his films “sell” or not. Chances are, Talladega Nights will help solidify Ferrell’s positioning in Hollywood with respectable box-office numbers, but that’s not saying much or at least not answering the question readers want answered: Is Ferrell’s latest consistently funny or did we see all the best jokes already in the trailer or on television commercials. Short answer: no and yes.
"Red staters will love it; blue staters, not so much."
First, though, you probably want a breakdown of the storyline, right? Here goes. Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell), an inveterate dreamer from a broken home working in a NASCAR it crew, finally gets the chance he’s been waiting for, the opportunity to drive a stock car in a NASCAR race after the driver walks off in disgust. Bobby miraculously comes in third, but he has bigger ambitions in mind. At a career day years earlier, an impressionable Bobby listened as his drunken father, Reese (Gary Cole), a semi-pro racer and sometime pot dealer, regaled his classmates with his simple, if compelling, philosophy, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” In quick succession, Bobby goes from pit crewmember to frequent winner and top earner for the Dennit family, Larry (Pat Hingle) and his son, Larry Jr. (Greg Germann). Bobby also gets married to an opportunistic bottle blonde, Lucy (Jane Lynch), while his best friend and fellow stock car driver, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly), looks on.
Fast-forward a decade and Bobby’s still at the top of his game. He lives in a mansion with his wife, her elderly father, and his two misbehaving sons, Walker and Texas Ranger. Bobby goes out every race, which means he either wins or crashes spectacularly. Larry Jr. disapproves and brings in a Formula One driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who wants to race against and beat the best, Ricky Bobby. Girard and Bobby clash early and spectacularly face-to-face and on the racetrack, but with more than half of Talladega Nights’ running time to go, Bobby (and the audience) is in for a series of painful, life-changing experiences which take him back home to his mother and a frustrating reunion with his beer-swilling father. That Talladega Nights goes where every sports film has gone before shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, moviegoers won’t be sitting in a darkened theater looking for an original storyline. They want laughs, consistent laughs and that pretty much depends on Will Farrell.
Character or persona wise, stupid and boorish is as Will Ferrell does and no one does stupid and boorishness like Will Ferrell does (repeatedly). Ferrell's ugliest of ugly Americans shtick wears thin once the storyline gets past the scene-setting scenes/montage of Bobby's string of successes and introduces the villain at the 25-minute mark or so. On the negative side, we get not just one, but two (and that's one, maybe two many) Will Ferrell-running-in-his-underwear gags. The first time the gag is mildly humorous, the second time not so much (plus we've seen the best, er bits in the trailer and television commercial). On the plus side, sometimes stupid is funny: the Will Ferrell-stabbing-himself-in-the-leg gag works, mostly because it cleverly goes past the point of no return. Likewise with the let’s-say-grace-at-dinner scene and a cougar-personifying-fear scene. Alas, the inspired gags slow to a trickle post-cougar scene as Talladega Nights slides back into the winner-take-all race between Girard and Bobby that serves as the climax.
What doesn't work in Talladega Nights? Well, let's start with the hissable, macchiato, jazz-listening, Perrier-sponsored French villain, Jean Girard. Girard’s not only French, a hanging offense in certain parts of red America, but he's also, insert gasp here, gay. Worse still, at least for some moviegoers, the gay French villain is also, double gasp, romantically attached to a chubby, effeminate dog trainer he calls his "husband." In the super-straight, ultra-macho world of NASCAR stock racing as epitomized by the non-homosexual relationship Bobby and Cal share, being French, gay, and married is meant to be outrageously hilarious (or is it hilariously outrageous?), but here it’s worse than offensive, it becomes painful to sit through. In short order, Gerard turns into a one-joke character and an even weaker villain. Gerard was better left as a one-off background character, not the full-on villain.There’s a potentially deeper problem here, though. Call it the "Ben Stiller Syndrome:" an actor/comedian strikes comedic/box office gold with a specific persona (dumb, repressed, fun-loving, goofball, accident prone, etc.) and rides said persona for all its worth until, five or six films later, each one less inspired and more forced than the last, the actor/comedian decides (or more likely, is forced) to take a sabbatical. Some times the sabbatical works, some times it doesn't. Ferrell may not be ready for his sabbatical yet, but he’s getting close. Hopefully Ferrell's second attempt at being taken seriously as an actor (after Woody Allen's underseen "Melinda and Melinda"), "Stranger Than Fiction" will help. If not, one of the four or five active projects he’s currently working on will. Or not.
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originally posted: 08/03/06 19:40:36