In his autobiography, Rewrites: A Memoir, Neil Simon writes of the contract a playwright makes with the audience. In the opening minutes, the “world” of the play is established. Thus, Simon posits that if the play sets itself in the audience’s mind as a farce, it must complete itself as a farce; if it’s a drama, it most resolve itself within the rules of drama, etc. Simon is right; many a good comedy fails due to a lack of stylistic cohesion, and although many narrative cheats and shortcuts are happily forgiven by the audience, at the end of the day audiences will feel shortchanged if the style and story are not as well-conceived as the funny lines and comedic set-pieces. Talladega Nights, although not without many incidental comic pleasures and excellent turns by the gifted cast, suffers from a malaise even greater than the one Simon suggested: it not only fails to keep its contract with the audience, it’s not even sure what that contract is.
Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a top NASCAR stock car driver with the world at his fingertips: seemingly invincible on the track, rich, hot wife, loyal best friend, you name it, Ricky’s got it. His world begins to fall apart when arrogant French driver Jean Girrard (brilliantly played by Sasha Baron Cohen of Da Ali G Show) comes to America to take Ricky’s NASCAR crown. Without divulging too much plot (not that there’s all that much to divulge), Ricky loses his nerve, and pretty much everything else, and must find his way back to success, both as a driver and a human being. You can pretty much paint-by-numbers from there.
Ferrell is truly a first-rate comic actor. Unlike many of his SNL predecessors, his instincts for “playing it straight” allow him to not only get away with outrageous comedy, but also anchor a film emotionally. After watching him in Talladega Nights, I also think Farrell has the chops to do fine dramatic work as well. And Ferrell has his work cut out for him in this film. As the material veers from over-the-top farce, to “human comedy” to occasional drama, Farrell manages all of it effortlessly. But despite his talents, and those of his fine supporting cast, Talladega Nights feels like a series comedic set-ups in search of a movie. The funniest moments clearly came out of the actors’ on-set improvisations (the end titles outtakes was probably the funniest extended sequence in the picture). One such sequence is the dinner at the Bobbys’, with Ricky’s best friend and fellow driver Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly) in attendance. A simple before-meal grace turns into an extended riff on each character’s conception of Jesus and how to properly appeal to him.
Cohen’s character is under-utilized, and once the rivalry between Girrard and Ricky is established, he disappears for extended chunks of the film. Still, Cohen energizes the film every time he is on-screen and one wishes that he and Ferrell had more screen time together. But, like most of the film, characters and their underdeveloped subplots come and go, forcing the viewer to switch gears far too many times, and without the large comedic payoffs that would keep the audience along for the ride.
NASCAR is certainly a ripe target for satire, but the filmmakers throw only the most gentle and cursory of jabs at the multi-billion dollar industry that undoubtedly gave the project its blessing. One wonders if the film would have more comedic edge if it were less afraid to take a bite or two at the hand that apparently fed it.
In brief, Reilly and Ferrell make a great duo; Molly Shannon is hilarious in her cameo as the drunken, horny wife of the race team owner; Leslie Bibby is great as Ferrell’s hot (as in HOT…as in SMOKI’ HOT), gold-digging wife; and Jane Lynch and Gary Cole are also excellent as Ricky’s estranged parents.
So, Talladega Nights is a mess, but one that, given the talented performers involved, is not without its share of funny moments. Perhaps the Talladega Nights crew would be wise to take a page or two out of Neil Simon’s book. As Anchorman and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin proved, these guys are capable of better. Let’s hope next time they prove it.