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Usually, a Will Ferrell vehicle is good for a few genuine chuckles, if not more. This time, his vehicle is a stock car, and it gets pretty good mileage out of its jokes. As an added bonus, this vehicle’s frame seems a bit sturdier than past models, which makes it hold together a bit better at high speeds.

Zero to Destiny in Less than Twenty Minutes

One jazz-appreciating gay Frenchman is one too many in NASCAR
One jazz-appreciating gay Frenchman is one too many in NASCAR

Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, an eager kid from a pit crew who was thrust into the NASCAR spotlight when his driver, already in last place, decided to stop for lunch and a quick phone call. Ricky put himself in the driver’s seat and never looked back.

Ricky’s story goes from zero to destiny in under 20 minutes. Before you know it Ricky has climbed his way to the top and is gloating at the world: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” He praises his obnoxious sons for disrespecting their elders, because after all, they’re winners. When Cal (John C. Reilly, the eternal sidekick), his best friend since childhood wants to share the spotlight, Ricky doesn’t even understand the question. You might as well ask Ricky to cut off his own leg with a spoon.

Obviously, this movie protagonist has some humility in his future, followed by a rebound into dignity. The catalyst is a snooty French driver (Sacha Baron Cohen) who gets under Ricky’s skin.

The South Will Rise Again

Superficially, Talladega Nights works as a Will Ferrell comedy. The jokes are fast and furious, at least to begin with, and many of them are funny. Writers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell don’t settle for toilet humor or pop culture references. They actually write jokes that work in the context of the movie. For example, Ricky’s contract requires him to mention Powerade every time he says grace, which he begins with “Dear Lord little baby Jesus....” That, in turn, leads which version of Jesus each member of the family likes to imagine while praying. Cal, for example, likes to think of Jesus singing lead vocals for Lynrd Skynrd. And some of the better jokes are purely visual, including some absurdly painful-looking slapstick.

But there’s also an interesting theme to the movie, and it has to do with Southern culture. People say grace (how often do you see that at the movies?). They name their kids “Walker” and “Texas Ranger.” The wedding photos all need redeye reduction, and the highlight of the reception is the nacho-cheese fountain. And of course, Ricky’s nemesis is a jazz-appreciating, gay Frenchman, who dares to play Charlie Parker at Ricky’s saloon.

This “theme” isn’t particularly deep or meaningful, but it does a couple of good things for this movie. First, it makes it all hold together well. The randomness of Ferrell’s schtick has a way of getting out of control and causing a movie to lose steam. So by making sure everything fits into the NASCAR culture, the movie feels like more than just a collection of jokes. Second, it gives both sides of the American cultural divide something to laugh about. Afterwards, I wondered whether the movie invited us to laugh with the characters on the screen, or to laugh at them. I think the movie invites both. Beforehand, I was afraid it might resort to denigrating jokes about skanks and rednecks, and maybe it does a little bit, but it also paints the characters sympathetically so that you can laugh with them, too.

Surprisingly, the post-credits gag seems to suggest that this was the writers’ approach. In it, Ricky’s now-well-behaved sons discuss the meaning in a William Faulkner short story with their grandmother.

“Are we supposed to mourn the death of the Old South or welcome it?” asks one.

“Both,” suggests grandma.

“Of course! Moral ambiguity marked all of the great literature of the early twentieth century.”

Checkered Flag

Will Ferrell is a funny man. He’s a comedian with a lot of potential. His schtick is predictable, but it works: he’s good at playing the self-absorbed buffoon, someone who’s confidence is matched only by his cluelessness. Into this mix goes a teaspoon of random chaos, just to keep things interesting.

Anchorman (Movie Habit’s 1,000th review) was funny, but it didn’t quite work as a film, and you could say the same of some of the other Ferrell vehicles, too (Elf, Old School). I hesitate to say that Talladega Nights is any better than these films, but at least it seems to be more at home in the medium of film.

Talladega Nights may not be worth a special trip to the theater. But if you need a laugh and you like Will Ferrell, this vehicle might be just the breezy ride you’re looking for.