Thursday, December 14, 2006

Talladega Nights: the ballad of ricky bobby

'Saturday Night Live' has a lot to answer for. Hollywood would have had a whole lot less comedy classics in its repertoire were it not for the likes of Ayckroyd, Murray, Belushi, Myers and co. But it seems the latest graduate from the hit-and-miss American comedy show is really starting to look like something of a Hollywood bigshot. Talladega Nights: the ballad of Ricky Bobby, co-written by Ferrell, was a massive hit at the U.S. box office, raking in around $50 million in its opening weekend alone. Should we be surprised at his apparently sudden meteoric rise to his current position of the top banana comic actor in tinseltown? Well, for me, I've never been against Will Ferrell, when I think of his scene-stealing turn in Old School and the excellent Anchorman I can't really stay mad at him for long!

Talladega Nights is a comedy about Nascar racing featuring Will Ferrell as a dumb Southern guy named Ricky Bobby, and Sacha Baron Cohen (yep, Borat..) as his gay French nemesis: Jean Girard. Do I even need to say much more? This movie is not a surprise package by any means, and delivers exactly what it promises. Leave your brain at the cinema door folks, it's gonna get a bit dopey round these parts... and that's exactly what makes Talladega Nights so enjoyable!

Farrelly Brothers comedies went through a bit of a purple patch in the 90's with Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself and Irene, and of course There's Something About Mary. However, I sometimes felt that the level the Farrellys were aiming for meant that the best moments of those movies were a little diluted by interludes of pretty basic farce. What all of these movies had that made them appealing though was a genuine heart at the centre of all the lunacy. Cameron Diaz was at her wholesome best in 'Mary', Rene Zellwegger actually married Jim Carrey after 'Irene', and Dumb and Dumber.. well, sometimes the most complex genius just can't be explained!

'Ricky Bobby' has a slightly different brand of comedy than you would see in a Farrelly Brothers farce, but there is a similar thread of genuine emotion running through the movie, even if it is very definitely tongue in cheek, and never even coming close to the territory of schmaltz. (There's no 'Scrubs' style voice-over summing up the lessons at the end, don't worry!)

Jim Carrey's prat falls and gurning created his own niche in Hollywood which rapidly became a genre, and his comic style polarised audiences. You either loved him or hated him for his over the top, rubber-faced physical comedy... and then came 'The Truman Show'. After that 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. It seems Jim had something to prove, and it could be argued that he shown he can be a serious actor.

Ferrell has made a few comedies at this stage, and has a couple of very big box office hits to his name. However, his next outing looks like it may be the 'Truman Show' moment of his career. 'Stranger Than Fiction' has the look of a good one folks, and I may even find my way to the cinema to have a look.

Back to Talladega Nights though, and here Ferrell is convincing, but not just as a dumb redneck caricature of a race-car driver. He convinces by virtue of the fact that much of the dialogue exchanged by the characters in the movie has his anarchic signature, and is the better for it. His performance is nothing like an early Jim Carrey flick, and the best lines in the movie aren't childish catchphrases, but rather have the feel of something more improvised and spontaneous than that. It's this improvised feel that gives Talladega Nights a kind of unique atmosphere. You get the sense the actors are enjoying themselves, especially in Ferrell's scenes with his best buddy, John C. Reilly.

I had always associated Reilly with tragic characters, but I blame Paul Thomas Anderson for that. If you've seen Magnolia or Boogie Nights, you'll know what I mean. But in this one, he is genuinely funny, and seems to really relish the freedom offered by a comic role. The out-takes in the end credits of the movie give some hints to how many liberties he took with his dialogue, worth staying in your seat for! The relationship between himself and Ferrell is an important one, because it's really the lynch-pin of this movie. Some of their conversations are priceless, watch out for Reilly helping Ferrell say grace near the start..

Sacha Baron Cohen delivers a solid performance as Ferrell's gay French Nascar nemesis, and his big entrance in the movie is worth the admission price alone. He has some of the best lines in the movie, and handles the weighty responsibility of being Ferrell's foil with aplomb. He'll have done his Hollywood credentials no harm with a hit this big under his belt, and now that Borat has hit the stratosphere, we can expect to see more of his Hollywood adventures in the near future. Watch out for him alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's musical version of Sweeney Todd, coming soon, I kid you not folks.

The supporting cast are all decent, with Ricky Bobby's two young sons in particular delivering some classic lines.. until they get disciplined by Ricky's momma that is. That guy from Anchorman and Thank You For Smoking, David Koechner is in there, amongst a few other familiar faces.

But to be honest, Ferrell steals the show in Talladega Nights. He's not a guy who will polarise audiences in the same way as Jim Carrey, and his comedy is more anarchic than ridiculous, so he'll have a broader appeal than old rubber-face as a comic actor. However, if Stranger Than Fiction sits well with cinema audiences, his Carrey-esque departure into more serious stuff might happen sooner than it did for Jim..

Fear not though, for if you think Ferrell is giving up dumb sports comedies to follow his thespian aspirations, you are sorely mistaken. He's already done soccer (Kicking and Screaming) and Nascar (Talladega Nights), but he's got a basketball (Semi-Pro) and an ice-hockey movie (Blades of Glory) in the pipeline, and neither look like they'll be garnering too many oscar nominations just yet. So in the domain of the MTV movie awards he'll stay for the moment, and to be honest, that's fine by me, as long as the quality stays around the level of Talladega Nights.

Overall, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is generally good for a laugh, and the level of comedy is broad enough to appeal to most, without ever aiming for the lowest common denominator, like the Farrellys - albeit expertly - might have done. You won't be edified culturally by this movie, but fuck it, sometimes movies are just about entertainment... so shake and bake, baby! Yeah! Woo! U! S! A!

The Verdict: Good solid fun.
Rating: 7/10

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