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Monday, August 07, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

I’m not a big fan of the comedy genre sometimes called the “fratboy slob” movie (or alternatively, the “former SNL cast member cheap and stupid” movie). Even the “classics” like Animal House and There’s Something About Mary leave me irritated or yawning or both. But I laughed out loud, several times, at the trailer for this new Will Ferrell opus, and when it got better-than-expected reviews, I decided to check it out one hot afternoon. And, happy surprise, it really is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen lately.

It won’t win any awards for gentility, grace, or a beautifully shaped plot. But it has more belly laughs per minute than practically anything in recent memory (maybe the best 45 minutes from The Devil Wears Prada would beat it, but the other half of that movie is fairly dreary). And there is one scene in particular – an amazingly extended, probably mostly improvised number in which our hero, NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, says grace before a meal with his, shall we say, boisterous family – that I’m tempted to call a masterpiece, if the word didn’t seem out of place in this context.

Will Ferrell is just fine as Ricky Bobby, but two supporting turns are even better: John C. Reilly as Ricky’s best pal Cal, and Sacha Baron Cohen as his archrival Jean Girard. Reilly really lets fly in the first out and out farce I’ve ever seen him in. His riffs on Southern good ole boydom have to be seen and heard to be believed – just brilliant. Cohen, whose Ali G and Borat have already amply illustrated his ability to turn PC attitudes inside-out and make you squirm and laugh simultaneously, has a potentially offensive and unpleasant role here: Girard is not only French, he’s gay, and is given mountains of negative stereotypes to work with. But Cohen manages to make him superbad (a nearly invincible opponent), totally ridiculous, and lovable, all at once. He could read the phone book with his preposterous accent and have you rolling on the floor. Yet despite the uninhibited dialogue, there’s really not a mean bone in this movie, and we should be grateful. (As Ricky Bobby might say, we should thank the cute little Lord Baby Jesus.)

The script is a messy hodgepodge, with dead spots and plenty of dud gags, but like the first Airplane! it just keeps throwing hundreds of jokes at you continuously until something sticks, and Adam McKay’s direction is admirably steady and speedy amid the chaos. Talladega Nights is sheer summer-movie bliss. Don’t sit around thinking you’re too good for it. Just go.

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