“Talladega Nights” is the purest, character-driven comedy of the last 16 years. The movie takes a page out of Ron Burgundy’s mahogany-bound comedic playbook and gives its characters ample amount of open road to play. Never does it feel too goofy or zany, where any joke or a stunt is so outlandish or esoteric that it would pierce the storytelling tires into a sub-par comedy tailspin. It takes deep, methodical breaths in its pacing, and in turn, generating hearty, belly-tingling laughs.
Will Ferrell stars as Ricky Bobby, a wannabe NASCAR driver with some daddy issues who stumbles into a once-in-a-lifetime scenario to drive during a real race. Bobby becomes toast of town, his face as welcome a sight as the mighty checkered flag. But a mysterious French driver (mysterious is the perennial adjective du jour when describing French people) named Jean Girard shows up on the circuit, dethroning Ricky from folk hero to cautionary tale faster than zero to sixty. It’s a much subtler, less hairy ass-spreading change of pace for “Borat’s” Sacha Baron Cohen, but one at which he excels.
Ricky loses to Jean in spectacular fashion and hits rock bottom. His wife Carley (Leslie Bibb) leaves him for his best friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C Reilly). He moves back in with his mom (Jane Lynch) and starts to cauterize old wounds with his dad (Gary Cole). And he falls head over Applebee’s stool for Susan, his mild-mannered former assistant (played by Amy Adams). Their collective efforts help bring Ricky back to center asphalt, his name in lights once again but this time with the clarity that if you want to go fast, you’ve got to slow down a bit and see what’s important.
Not even taking into account its masterful comedic dexterity, the movie is an excellent example of a rigid, fine-tuned storytelling arc. It never delves out too much info or not enough, and perfectly balances its extended cast of characters. We’re always happy to see Ricky and crew’s familiar faces, even though it never feels like they’ve been off-screen too long. That is owed in large part to Adam McKay, the film’s writer/director, former SNL head writer and frequent collaborator of Ferrell’s. McKay knows story beats, pauses, acts and arcs like they were tattooed on his hand. It’s clear that the “Talladega Nights” we got is the most refined, masterfully written/edited version of it, that all loose story threads were cut and all extra film fat was trimmed and tenderized to its full deliciousness.
But the humor is what makes this movie special. The film is clearly a distant child of the best Groundling sketches and Improv routines of the past 30 years. Bobby is a character so funny and rife with potential that he cannot exist on a stage or television screen, he needs a full-length feature to get the entirety of his story across. “Anchorman’s” penchant for obscure one liners and sun-glistened zaniness made us laugh into whale vagina’s we never thought possible. “Talladega Nights” does the same, but dares us to feel on top of it, and feel fast.