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Friday, August 04, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

It's become almost a custom for big comedies to feature outtakes during the end credits. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is the first time I ever felt I was watching a movie made entirely out of outtakes. The movie seems as if it was improvised and made up on the spot, almost as if director Adam McKay (Anchorman) and his cast just showed up on the NASCAR circuit one day, and decided to make a movie. I certainly would not be surprised, as the end result is a slapdash comedy that is sporadically funny, but doesn't hold nearly enough genuine laughs to fill its overlong nearly two hour running time. You know the movie is in trouble when it starts showing actual outtakes during the end credits, and you have a hard time telling them apart from the movie you've just seen.

The film is intended to be a parody of every inspirational bio-picture ever made, and pretty much hits all the predetermined stops as it covers the rise, fall, and rise once more of dim-witted NASCAR champion, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell). Born to a loving mother (Jane Lynch) and a deadbeat dad who walked out on the family years ago (Gary Cole), Ricky Bobby has only had one goal in life - to go fast. Ricky has used that desire to fuel his dreams of becoming a champion racer, and used his will to rise from lowly pit crew member to out of the blue sensation. Ricky's rise is almost instantaneous, and before long, he has a beautiful trophy wife named Carley (Leslie Bibb), and a pair of foulmouthed children named Walker and Texas Ranger (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell). With the help of his best friend on the racing circuit, Cal Naughton Jr (John C. Reilly), Ricky seems to be unstoppable as he races forward to his dream of winning the big prize in the NASCAR world, thinking of little else except for himself.

The dream is shattered with the arrival of a new racing prodigy - a pretentious homosexual French racer named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is gunning to take Ricky out of the top spot. A tragic accident puts an immediate end not only to Ricky's rise to the top, but also to his perfect life, as it forces his shallow wife to leave him for his best friend Cal. With nothing but despair ahead of him, Ricky will be forced to face his fears and insecurities, as well as turn to the father who abandoned him years ago if he ever wants to race again. Through his father's unorthodox teachings, Ricky Bobby will gain the confidence to take the prize he has always dreamed of.

Taking an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to its comedy, Talladega Nights fills just about every frame of its running time with some kind of gag. Unfortunately, only a scattered few actually work. Opening with a hilarious parody of inspirational phrases or quotes that often appear at the beginning of such underdog films, the movie offers hope right off the bat that the filmmakers know what they're doing. That hope slowly dies as the movie begins to lose steam shortly after the opening titles disappear. Many of the jokes do not work, and the few that do are scattered too far apart to make a real impression. With such a slapdash and amateurish approach, it's amazing that anyone involved with the project thought audiences would want to watch this for almost two hours. Is there just no more editing in Hollywood? Have studios become afraid to say "no" to directors and their vision? Why an intentionally stupid and featherweight comedy needs to run just a half hour shy of your average Oscar bait movie, I have no idea. The need for its length became even more questionable when I went to see The Night Listener immediately following this. If a somewhat intelligent and thought provoking dramatic thriller can tell its entire story in under an hour and a half in a satisfactory manner, then surely a film with no real plot to speak of can be happy with an abbreviated running time.

More so than the lack of laughs and the obscene running time, it is the character of Ricky Bobby himself that held me back. Will Ferrell plays him as a cartoonish Southern redneck who is so self-absorbed that he can't even realize that his life is a lie, and his friends only like him for his fame. While I suppose the character could be funny with the right approach, the way he is portrayed here, he comes across as an idiotic and hateful buffoon who deserves all the pain he gets during the middle portion of the movie. He is impossible to root for in the first and middle half, and his change of heart seems rather forced and unsatisfactory. I have a feeling the character is supposed to come across this way, but he is not funny or interesting enough for us to want to watch an entire movie about him. The other characters are either completely forgettable, or seem to be forgotten for long periods of time, popping up only when they can be the butt of the latest joke. In fact, the only character in the entire film who stands out is Ricky Bobby's French rival, and that's mostly thanks to the very funny and bizarre performance by Sacha Baron Cohen. His performance helps lift the character up from the tired cliche that he is, and generates some of the only laughs in the film itself.

The rest of the cast do what they can, but they are brought down by the weak screenplay. Will Ferrell overplays his role to heights unknown as he screams and mugs for the camera, but you kind of get the feeling that he's wasting a lot of energy for nothing, as he never gets to create an interesting comedic character out of Ricky Bobby. He's just another Southern stereotype played broadly for comedic effect with nothing original added to make him stand out. I could pretty much say the same for the entire cast, which includes some wonderful character actors such as Gary Cole and John C. Reilly who are stuck playing uninteresting or uninspiring roles that barely register. But, I suppose that's fitting, since few of the jokes manage to register as well. The movie often seems to be building to a punchline, only to either give us a disappointing pay off, or none at all. It's like the movie is in such a rush to get to the next gag that it completely forgets about the last one.

Talladega Nights is a lot like listening to a joke that all of your friends are in on, but you weren't there when it happened. They seem to be having the time of their lives as they look back and laugh at the memories, but you're forced to just stand there, nod your head, and smile. Likewise with this movie, the actors up on the screen seem to be having a great time, but it just doesn't carry through to the movie itself. It lacks the focus and the inspiration to be truly memorable. Despite a couple scattered laughs, Talladega Nights mostly comes across as a big load of wasted effort. Will Ferrell has always been a hit or miss comic with me, and this time, he misses by a mile.

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  • Great review .. I'm still gonna give this one a chance today, but negative buzz building has me lowering my expectations by the minute

    By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at 3:26 AM  

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