There is no modern-day antecedent to the movies Will Ferrell makes with writer-director Adam McKay, with whom Ferrell collaborated during their tenure at Saturday Night Live. To compare their offerings, 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 would slight those films. So where does that leave them? Somewhere in the 1930s, as spiritual heirs to the throne abandoned by the Marx Brothers. The films of Ferrell and McKay play like potty-mouthed throwbacks to the anarchic slapshtick of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and even Zeppo.
Talladega Nights might as well be titled A Day at the Races. Like Anchorman, with which it shares its essential plot of 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. It’s just the watered-down glue that keeps the movie from playing like a series of sketches in which grown-ass men do dumbass-kid stuff for nearly two hours. There are two kinds of scenes here: the short ones that advance the storyline, and the prolonged sequences in which Ferrell and/or John C. Reilly (as Ricky’s best friend, the whitest-trash Cal Naughton Jr.) and/or Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ricky’s rival, French fancy boy Jean Girard) make shit up and crack each other up and stop the cameras and start all over again. There’s no difference between the movie and the end-credit outtakes.
Ferrell may be no Groucho Marx— and McKay, 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, from Bewitched to Curious George, he reminds the audience of why he matters: because he’s the loudest, driest, and most fearless comic actor working. Once more he strips to his undies and gallops around as he did in Old School, but here it goes on and on till it becomes its own subplot.
Still, McKay and Ferrell imbue this shallow nonsense with some wink-wink depth—or at least try. That’s why Amy Adams is there as Ricky’s personal assistant and eventual love interest; that’s why deadpan whizzes Gary Cole and Jane Lynch are there as Ricky’s parents; that’s why Reilly’s there 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 to keep the car on the track. Because without the chassis, you’re just spinning your wheels.