Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby review by Mike Long

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If I were to go back to...oh let's say 1998 and watch Saturday Night Live, would I be surprised that Will Ferrell has become the movie star that he is today? Probably not, as Ferrell always showed a flair for comedy and seemed to put a great deal of energy into every role. But, I would have been very surprised to learn that Ferrell would have shanghaied a style of comedy which typically doesn't play well with the masses: the improvisational film. With 2004's Anchorman, Ferrell, along with co-writer/director Adam McKay, ushered in a new era of improv, which was even more unpredictable than the films of Christopher Guest. With Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ferrell and McKay have pushed that envelope even farther, producing a movie which rarely makes any logical sense, but is very fun.

As the title implies, the movie tells the life story of Ricky Bobby, who was born in the back of a car. Following this, we see Ricky as a child, where he meets his estranged father, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole), who tells Ricky that it's very important to go fast, and that "If you're not first, you're last." When we next see Ricky (now played by Will Ferrell), he's working on a pit crew for a stock car racing team. When the driver (a cameo by director Adam McKay) decides that he doesn't want to finish the race, Ricky takes over and gets his first real taste of racing. From that point, he becomes a professional NASCAR driver, and brings his best friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly), on as a fellow driver and teammate. It's during this time that Ricky meets his wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb).

The story then jumps ahead ten years. Ricky is now the most successful driver on the NASCAR circuit, as he and Cal finish 1st and 2nd in every race. He and Carley have two sons, Walker (Houson Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell) (both of whom are insolent, violent, and rude). Ricky seems to have it all. That is, until Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a French driver, arrives on the scene. Girard completely throws Ricky off of his game, and soon Ricky finds his entire life in a tail-spin. Ricky must hit rock-bottom before he's able to face his fears and get back on the track.

According to my wife, the narrative structure of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is very similar to Days of Thunder, so the movie has a cohesive plot. But, everything within that structure is insane and unpredictable.

Ferrell and McKay don't the get the same kind of attention that Christopher Guest and his cohorts do for making films where much of the material is improvised, but they certainly should, as they are taking the medium to a new level. While Guest's films offer their own brand of lunacy, they are often fairly low-key. While, on the surface, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby looks like your typical summer blockbuster as it features huge locations and several car crashes. And yet, beneath that shiny veneer lies a truly absurd movie where the actors appear to be saying the most bizarre thing that they can think of so as to challenge and/or throw-off their co-stars. (There's not much in the way of making of info on the DVD, but judging by the number of alternate takes, I can't help but assume that much of the dialogue is made up on the spot.)

It's this truly off-beat vibe that will make or break Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby for most viewers. If you enjoyed Ferrell and McKay's Anchorman, then you'll most like enjoy their latest project, but be warned, Ricky Bobby is even weirder than Anchorman. Much of the dialogue here makes little to no sense, and is usually only loosely connected to what's going on in the scene, but if you can wrap your mind around it, then Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is enjoyable. In short, this is one of those films which can be bewildering while watching it, but later on, you'll think about certain scenes and realize how funny they were. On the other hand, those who like their comedy nice and neat and logical will most likely leave this movie with a severe headache.

Given the oddly structured nature of the film, kudos must go to the cast. Apparently, Ferrell feels at home in this sort of environment, and while he's not exactly believable as a North Carolina native race-car driver, he's very funny in the film. Conversely, one could easily believe that Chicago native Reilly grew up in the South, as his accent and demeanor are very convincing. The actor who many viewers my overlook in Leslie Bibb who is excellent in her role as the gold-digging Carley. At times, it seems as if they just went out and found a trashy woman and dropped her into that role. As for Cohen, his role is so weird that I'm not sure how to rate it.

Given the fact that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby grossed nearly $150 million in the U.S., maybe Americans are more open to bizarre humor than most would give credit for. (Or maybe a bunch of NASCAR fans went to see the movie.) The movie is certainly funny, and while it doesn't contain an epic moment to match the brawl in Anchorman (Nor does it have as many exciting cameos as that film), it is worth seeing if you want to see a movie where Will Ferrell fights a cougar.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby takes the checkered flag on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The movie has come to DVD in four separate releases: PG-13 widescreen, PG-13 full-frame, Unrated widescreen, and Unrated full-frame. For the purposes of this review, only the Unrated widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.40:1 and the transfer has been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good, as its sharp and clear. The picture shows basically no grain and no defects from the source material. The image has a nice amount of depths and the big speedway shots look good. The colors are fine and the framing appears to be accurate. I noted some very minor artifacting at times, but nothing to be alarmed about. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. As with most Sony DVDs, the surround sound and subwoofer effects are quite nice and the race scenes make the viewer feels as if they are standing on the track as the cars zip by. In these scenes, the audio fills the speakers and the bass is quite powerful.

The Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby contains some very good extras. But, before that I should note that the Unrated version contains 13 more minutes than the PG-13 version. Having not seen that version, I can't comment on the differences -- although there is one scene with several F-bombs that I know wasn't in the PG-13 version. The extras are kicked off with one of the worst AUDIO COMMENTARIES that I've ever heard. Director/co-writer Adam McKay, actor Ian Roberts, and supervising producer Scott Kavanaugh attempt to create a funny spoof commentary and they fail miserably. McKay goes on and on providing erroneous information about where the film was shot, how much it cost, and how people on the crew were treated. There's nothing wrong with a spoof commentary...when they work. But, this one isn't the least bit funny. As I'm familiar with the area in which the movie was shot, I would have liked to have heard more about location scouting and it would be nice to learn more about how the "script" melds with the multiple takes. Fortunately, the rest of the extras are much better. Most of the extras are simply alternate takes from the movie. The DVD contains 9 DELETED/EXTENDED SCENES which total about 25 minutes. These contain two scenes which are essentially totally different versions of scenes which exist in the film. (The "Patrick Duffy" scene is hilarious.) Similarly, "Line-o-Rama" (6 minutes) is made up of alternate takes from the film. As is "Walker & Texas Ranger" (6 minutes) which contains alternate lines from the two boys. "Ricky & Cal's Commercials" (90 seconds) (which doesn't actually show Cal) contains extended footage from the film. "Ricky & Cal's Public Service Announcements" (3 minutes) show Ferrell and Naughton saying very weird things about stray dogs. (One has to wonder is there's enough footage to make a second film as they did with Anchorman.) There's a 2 1/2 minute GAG REEL. "Interviews" (14 minutes), contains interviews with the characters, not the actors, as we have "Ricky & Cal", "Jean & Gregory", and "Carley & Cal". "Will Ferrell Returns to Talladega" (5 minutes) shows the actor making a promotional appearance at a race and admitting that before the film he knew little about NASCAR. "Bonus Race Footage" (1 minute) is just that. The last extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER which contains two scenes which aren't found anywhere else in the extras.

8 out of 10 Jackasses

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