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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Southern Culture on the Skids

There are plenty of brand names on display in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, an amiable satire of NASCAR and its beer-guzzlin’, Red-State-dwelling fans, but none so prominent as the one above the marquee: Will Ferrell.

Ferrell, who co-wrote Talladega with former "Saturday Night Live" and Anchorman collaborator Adam McKay, has reached a point in his career where he doesn’t necessarily need to be funny to elicit laughs. During a recent visit to Conan O’Brien, Ferrell brought the house down merely by saying hello, as if his audience was so giddy with anticipation that they couldn’t wait for a bona fide joke. Granted, there’s something inherently funny about Ferrell’s appearance -- his tall, awkward frame, his pale paunch, his goofy wardrobe. But there is a danger that comes with the kind of fame he’s earned as the star of blockbuster comedies like Anchorman and Old School -- the temptation to get lazy, to stop working so hard for the laughs.

Luckily, Talladega finds him close to peak form as Ricky Bobby, an all-American NASCAR champion who, as one character points out, has two first names. Like a stock-car race, the movie sputters out of the gate, gradually builds momentum and soon kicks into high-gear, as Ferrell and ace co-stars John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch and Gary Cole find their groove. Lynch, a veteran of Christopher Guest comedies like A Mighty Wind and Best In Show, and Cole, best known as the overbearing boss in Office Space, are perfectly cast, using their wry, deadpan deliveries to steal scenes from the marquee players. Meanwhile, Reilly brings the right mix of boundless enthusiasm and utter bewilderment to his role as Cal Naughton Jr., a fellow racer whose mental capacities are dubious at best.

Still, Talladega is Ferrell’s movie, through and through -- though Sacha Baron Cohen, as Ricky Bobby’s archrival, picks up a big assist. It is cheerfully absurd, buoyed by a paper-thin plot that lends Ferrell an outlet for his brand of wide-eyed foolishness. And while it lacks some of the inspiration that made Anchorman such a thorough delight, Ferrell and McKay’s spoof of NASCAR culture deftly wrings laughs out of Southern stereotypes without a hint of condescension. (Like stock-car legend Richard Petty, Ricky hails from North Carolina.) It pokes fun at obvious targets like the corporate sponsorship that reduces racecar drivers to walking billboards, and, as always, Ferrell spends plenty of time running around in his underwear. But Talladega finds its sharpest humor in its silliest, most abstract riffs, which frequently have as much to do with NASCAR as anchoring the evening news.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars