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 only a few years ago. 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, the closest purveyors of aim-high-shoot-lowbrow shtick in the googolplex, would slight those films — they’re already as slight as they get, to the point of being intangible. And to lump them in with the likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin diminishes the latter’s achievement as the lone gross-out-fuck-up comedy to possess surprising wells of emotional gravitas.
So where does that leave Ferrell and McKay? Probably somewhere in the 1930s, as spiritual heirs to the throne abandoned by the Marx Brothers and lesser vaudevillians who transitioned from stage to screen just as movies were getting moving. The films of Ferrell and McKay play like potty-mouthed throwbacks to the anarchic slapshtick of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and even Zeppo. Anchorman, a movie hinging on a story so threadbare as to be absent, played especially true to form: Four men run amok in a surreal “real” world in which people break into song for no reason and no one around them comments or cares.
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 despite being offered useless fortune-cookie advice by his stoner-speedster dad, is beside the point. So beside the point. Like, in another movie in another movie theater in another state 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 in Talladega Nights: 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 Kicking and Screaming and Bewitched to Curious George and Winter Passing, he reminds the audience of why he matters: because he’s the loudest, driest, and most fearless comic actor working. Once more he strips down to his undies and gallops around like a mental patient as he did in the career-breaking Old School, but here it goes on and on an on and on till it becomes its own subplot. He only imagines the flames he claims are engulfing him; this guy is closer to unhinged than unbridled.
A scene in which Jean Girard threatens to break Ricky’s arm goes on forever; so does the dinner in which Ricky allows his two boys (Walker and Texas Ranger) to threaten and abuse their grandfather while he and Cal and Ricky’s “smokin’ hot wife” Carley (Leslie Bibb) argue over the phrase “dear lord baby Jesus.” The movie exists only till the laughter dies down and the theater lights come up. It’s that elusive — jokes that can’t withstand someone else retelling them, because they’re funny only coming from Ferrell or Cohen, who plays Jean Girard like Borat with a speech impediment and a hard-on for a bearded Andy Richter. (Cohen is the Chico to Ferrell’s Groucho — a very gay Chico, but still.)
But McKay and Ferrell are smart enough to imbue this shallow nonsense with some wink-wink depth—or at least try. (Face it: Anchorman works best in fifteen-minute cable-TV increments.) That’s why Amy Adams (Junebug) is there as Ricky’s personal assistant and eventual inspiration and love interest; that’s why deadpan whizzes Gary Cole and Jane Lynch are there are 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 being made to keep the car on the track. Because without the chassis, you’re just spinning your wheels.