Jerked out of Momma’s belly at the screech of a speeding Chevvy; pilfering cars at the age of eight (eyes squinting over the steering-wheel, baseball bat flooring accelerator); pretty future wife impulsively snared after a post-race tit-flash (“Please be 18!”).
Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby (“You’ve got two first names?”) was born fast, raised quick and, by his own frequent admission, is always number one – the undisputed best at being first. Er, a bit like Lightning McQueen in Cars...
Talladega Nights is, so far, the year’s funniest film. Who you gonna call? American Dreamz? The Moguls? With the rest of the frat-pack otherwise detained (Vaughn going gooey with Aniston, Stiller doing animal voices for Madagascar, Wilson manfully propping up You, Me And Dupree), only Jack Black In Tights is daring to attempt a tip-up of Ferrell’s comedy-king throne.
Feel free to curl your lip at the limpness of Kicking & Screaming and the grey-eyed refit of Bewitched. But this is a long way from phone-in Ferrell, sunning himself on someone else’s ideas. He’s having fun; grandstanding on home turf, revisiting his Anchorman duet with ex-improv pal Adam McKay. And when he’s up and flailing and flaring like this, he’s like a whirling catherine wheel, spitting out bright comic sparks, igniting and inspiring his co-stars to raise their game.
John C Reilly, for one, is a revelation – practically a reinvention. Although he’s always held his own as a shy, dry kinda guy, he’s perilously close to being the funniest thing in the movie, his thicko sidekick Cal imprinting on Ricky like a panting puppy, complete with drooling catchphrase (“Shake and bake!”).
And, while Ferrell’s jubilant form shows he’s always best on his own terms, Sacha Baron Cohen finally proves he can operate on someone else’s. As sneering fop Jean Girard, he drives a Perrier-endorsed car, browses Camus mid-race, slinks around in uppity suits, sucking on stinky tabs and cranks the silly French accent so far beyond all previous attempts at silly French accents it’s practically a parody of a parody. With each agonising, overcooked vowel and spittle-scattering consonant, it continually threatens to collapse under the weight of its own glorious idiocy.
Talladega Nights’ comic punch lands so squarely because there’s no sniping, no pointing and laughing at the NASCAR culture the movie piggy-backs on. Everything flows from the characters’ absurdities, with no cheap points scored at the expense of their world. Event sequences are presented with affection and the racing action is as crunching and kinetic as the jokes are funny.
Still, the motorsport theme is merely convenient backdrop. Ricky is just another twist on Ferrell’s Anchorman riff: the swaggering, self-promoting, self-loving imbecile with no self-awareness. He’s also a sly nod to his countrymen’s worldwide bum rep (“Ah’m just a big, American winnin’ machine!”).
On top of being the most consistent grin-grabber of 2006, Talladega Nights is packed with other dead-cert year-bests... Funniest Family Meal: “Dad, you made that grace your bitch!”
Most Heated Bar-Room Debate: France’s cultural superiority over the US (“We have given the world democracy, existentialism and the menage-a-trois.”)
Least Appropriate Product Placement: “Your mysterious lady-parts need the best protection around. Maypax – official tampon of NASCAR.”
Least Successful Verbal Interpretation: “‘Psychosomatic’? Is that when you can start fires with your thoughts?”
It’s a pacy, racy, relentless blitz of low-slung character sketch, high-flying improv and big, fat belly laughs. The story – Riches To Rags And Back Again – is hardly fresh, but Ferrell and McKay consistently tweak expectations and dig out new angles on old clichés. It’s not hard to guess who wins in the final face-off between Ricky and Jean Girard, but you’ll never guess how.
So, if you only see one movie this year based around the culture of NASCAR and featuring a lead character obsessed with speed and winning who is later forced to slow down and accept a little humility and take stock of his life and learn the importance of friends and family, make it Talladega Nights. Maybe Cars on DVD...