Usually, when a majority of critics embrace a comedy starring a funny guy I worship, that's a bad sign. It's usually a sign that someone has sold out and watered down the product. The trailer didn't seem that funny to me, and for a chunk of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, as 17 year old boys in the theater around me snickered and guffawed, I wondered if Will Ferrell and company were suffering from overuse. NASCAR is such an obvious target, and this movie makes all the obvious if loving jabs at the expense of the sport.
But with every Will Ferrell movie, there are quotes I can recycle for years and years to my sisters' annoyance, and this movie contains more than a handful, including many that were obscured by the laughter of the packed house. Sascha Baron Cohen is magnifique as "Formula Un" racer Jean Girard, the racing footage is surprisingly good (like ice hockey, I suspect NASCAR is several magnitudes more exciting when watched live instead of on television), and Amy Adams is a scene stealer yet again.
SUSAN (Amy Adams) to RICKY BOBBY'S DAD (Gary Cole):
"Hi, I'm Susan. I'm his lady. I painted the cougar on his car."
"We had sex."
RICKY BOBBY'S DAD:
"I wish I was there for that."
My appreciation for movies like Anchorman - The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and other frat pack flicks seems to rise over time. I suspect it has to do with how they're filmed. As the outtakes reveal, Ferrell and company shoot dozens of different jokes for every scene and then sift through all the material to stitch together the best comedic exchanges in post-production (half the jokes and shots in the trailer didn't even make the final movie; they probably have enough material to do an entirely different version of the entire movie, much of which we're certain to see on the DVD). The choppy editing is perhaps an inevitable product of the shooting style. A lot of cuts in this movie are obvious leaps to different takes, and not only do characters jump around on screen, but conversations have a Frankensteinian rhythm to them. They throw everything at the wall in these productions, and they stitch together anything that sticks.
The first time watching a movie like this, some of the jokes work, some don't. By the second or third or fourth viewing, my mind just filters out the jokes that don't work, while seeing Ferrell deliver a ridiculous joke with absolute commitment for the tenth time seems to magnify its power.
Will Ferrell's comedic talents work best when he's in a movie or sketch. His genius is remaining absolutely in character, no matter how absurd the situation. When he's being interviewed on a talk show or on the red carpet, he's never quite as funny. Like Phil Hartman, he's funniest when he's in character, which happens to be all the time when he's on camera. Outside a fictional setting, his commitment can seem forced, as when he guest-hosted for Letterman. Ferrell has throttled any semblance of self for the comedic benefit of the rest of us, bless his soul.
[By the way, the reverse is true, too: real-life people rarely seem as charismatic when put in front of the camera. All the real-life NASCAR drivers in Talladega Nights? Dull. The same with any real-life television broadcaster who appears in a movie, something that happens with alarming frequency these days. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few sports stars who were funny on camera. Kareem in Airplane, maybe Brett Favre in There's Something More About Mary because his acting was so bad it became a spoof of itself. "Oh Mary, I've missed you so much."]
Not surprisingly, Ferrell's funniest characters are those who take themselves too seriously to begin with. Of those, few are funnier than pairs figure skaters, especially in that moment when, just before the music starts, they get into character in a melodramatic pose. I look forward to seeing Ferrell and Jon Heder when they bring that moment to life in Blades of Glory.
"Are we gonna get it on?! Cuz I am harder than a diamond in a snow storm!"