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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

(2006) *** Pg-13
107 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Adam McKay. Cast: Will Ferrell, David Koechner, Sacha Baron Cohen, John C. Reilly, Michael Clarke Duncan.

Movies didn't always reveal themselves so baldly by their titles. Casablanca, It Happened One Night, Gone With the Wind: all evocative, but with enough mystery to fire the imagination and pique interest. In an age of mass marketing met with a skittish terror of risk, movie titles make promises to viewers. All those "2" and "3" appellations and literal-minded headline banners: Monster House, Superman Returns, Snakes on a [Motherf***ing] Plane. Well, if Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby doesn't have you chuckling right from the movie listings, you may as well not bother.

Following the proven formula of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, director Adam McKay and co-writer/star Will Ferrell have crafted another can't-miss comedy around a larger-than-life comic persona. NASCAR racing legend Ricky Bobby (Ferrell, again channeling zen foolishness) is the poster boy for All-American heartland success. With a need for speed instilled from birth (we see his parents' 165mph trip to the hospital—and past it—during labor), Ricky quickly learns from his no-account pappy (Gary Cole) that "if you ain't first, you're last."

Ricky's "drive" translates into a winning record and an ideal life working alongside loyal, lifelong best buddy Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly) and living with smoking-hot, blonde wife Carley (Leslie Bibb) and young sons Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell). The only nagging undertone is the absence of Ricky's father, for whom Ricky habitually leaves two tickets at the will-call window. That issue aside, Ricky thinks nothing of crowing to TV crews, "I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence!"

Ironically, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby takes its cues from Aristotle by so thoroughly granting Ricky high stature, establishing his tunnel-vision hubris, and then pummeling him with a worst-case-scenario downfall. Yes, Ricky does pray to "tiny Jesus" (in a hilarious, largely improvised dinner-table "grace" scene), but he takes his lucky streak and the people in his life for granted. Ricky pays no heed to the near-selfless Cal's desire to win, just once ("I'll just bury it down inside," Cal agrees), or his team's warnings about his reckless driving. Soon, Ricky's lost his career, his family, and his health to a personal tailspin.

Where Aristotle leaves off, however, sports movies kick in, and soon Ricky is on track to reclaim his lost glory and find new love with lady-in-waiting Susan (Amy Adams of Junebug). To do it, Ricky will have to conquer his personal demons but also his replacement on the Dennit racing team: gay-Paris driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. "Ali G"). Along the way, McKay and Ferrell dance lightly along the line between affection for the subject matter—enough to win NASCAR's full participation—and "white trash" mockery. Ricky considers Applebee's a gourmet restaurant (when not laying out heaps of fast food for family dinners), and encourages his potty-mouthed kids to be boundary-less bullies.

Talladega Nights benefits from its NASCAR verisimilitude (the racing footage would, for the most part, look convincing in a straight treatment) and authentic slathering of brand-name product placement, but the film would be nothing without its comedy riffing. There's no weak link in the sprawling cast, which includes Michael Clarke Duncan, Jane Lynch, Greg Germann, Pat Hingle, David Koechner, Jack McBrayer, Molly Shannon, and Andy Richter, and the film's consistent ticklishness frequently breaks out into uproarious set pieces, like a hospital freakout for Ricky and training sessions involving a cougar and a blindfold, respectively.

Because of its formal narrative demands (which flag a bit in the last act), Talladega Nights isn't quite as freewheelingly loose as Anchorman, but in most respects the films are equally entertaining. When McKay and Ferrell return with the weightlifting comedy "Weighty Matters: The Saga of Anatoli Statsinsky" or the ENRON spoof "Taking Stock: The Ticker-Tape Tale of Len Kay" or whatever they have in mind next, count me in.

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