Ferrell came to prominence on "Saturday Night Live" doing a dead-on impersonation of President Bush. Ferrell has a similar method: single-minded intensity unspoiled by a sense of proportion, reason or range. He's a total dope or an all-out spazz, not much between or beyond. It's the same in every movie, even when he's expected to carry the whole thing by himself, which can overwhelm him as it did in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." The good news is that Ferrell and his "Anchorman" co-writer and director Adam McKay have learned that an adequate number of good jokes is as important as Ferrell running around in his underwear. Their latest, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," is a big improvement.
Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, born in the back of a muscle car. Daddy Reese (Gary Cole) is enjoying the ride too much to stop at the hospital, and Ricky is born literally with the need for speed. "I want to go fast," is all he can say to his exasperated mother (Jane Lynch) as they grow up together in poverty without Reese, of course.
"Talladega Nights" is in part a parody of "Days of Thunder," and like that movie, it races full-throttle through its introduction into the first few conflicts. After his shiftless dad shows up at career day to impart some life-altering wisdom ("If you ain't first, you're last."), we find Ricky grown-up and working in the pit crew for a small-time NASCAR outfit. An errant driver prompts the crew chief (Michael Clarke Duncan) to find a replacement, asking, "Who wants to go fast?" We know who does.
"Anchorman" tied Ferrell down to a desk, a fatal mistake corrected by "Talladega Nights," which is funnier the faster it goes. In minutes Ricky Bobby is the toast of the NASCAR circuit, helped to win after win by his best friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), who, through a move they dub "shake and bake," catapults Ricky Bobby to victory. A girl in the stands (former Richmonder Leslie Bibb) shows Ricky her breasts. "Please God let her be 18," he says, then marries her. Then he buys his house. He even wins one going backward. Ricky Bobby, symbol of American achievement through dumb luck, can do no wrong. At least not until an espresso-sipping French driver (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G) shows up. Jean Girard comes from "Formula Un," has a husband, and, in the most unforgivable insult to the NASCAR community, listens to hard bop.
Here is where you might expect the movie to cruise to the finish with joke retreads and generic filler. There is some of that. And, of course, Ferrell being Ferrell, he must satisfy the inner urge to hoot like an ape and run around like Moe, Larry and Shemp all wrapped in one. But "Talladega Nights" remains surprisingly fresh until the end with hilarious set-pieces and unexpected twists. The outstanding question, especially nagging whenever Cohen's gay Frenchman is on the screen, is: Are these guys making fun of NASCAR, or trying to make NASCAR fans laugh?
I could never be sure, but some of the parody is merciless, and I left assuming Ferrell was making fun, taking inspiration from his original muse. Dubya impersonations and imaginary NASCAR drivers are not so far apart, really. Ricky Bobby shares not a few qualities with our commander in chief when he "wants to go fast," talks in maxims like, "If you ain't first, you're last," and counts his luck to the aid of Baby Jesus. Come to think of it, Reese Bobby looks a lot like a mangy version of George H.W. "You're not a thinker," a date says, complimenting Ricky Bobby's vacant, grinning mug in a road house bar, "you're a doer." Ferrell, at last, has the opportunity to channel his inner decider. (PG-13) 105 min. **** S