The white-trash child-neglect feel-good NASCAR comedy of the year (the one without the talking cars).
Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) was born going fast. After his father, Reese (Gary Cole), runs off while Ricky is still an infant, a surprise visit on a grade school career day teaches him the words he’ll live his life by. Years later, being in the right place at the right time pays off and propels Ricky to the top of the NASCAR circuit, but when a rival driver from France named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) declares Bobby as his arch rival, his happy life of winning takes a turn for the worse. Can Ricky Bobby make amends with his wife, get his best friend Cal (John C. Reilly) back, straighten out his heathen children, win the respect of his transient father, and beat his arch nemesis to the checkered flag?
As a live-action country song with all the trimmings, what makes The Ballad of Ricky Bobby work is an abundance of hilarious material and the ability to edit it into the best possible finished movie. Everyone can relate to the typical Will Farrel character (this time in the guise of a race car driver) that seems unaware of his own limitations; the fact that he just happens to be a phenomenal driver for no apparent reason turns the comedy up an extra notch. Unlike Anchorman, which reveled in the seventies in an under-appreciated send-up of self-important news programming, NASCAR is red hot, and the fact that Cars came out just ahead of it also works in its favor.
The second factor that makes Talladega Nights work is the willingness of Farrell to share the load; everyone gets their chance to be funny. John C. Reilly very nearly steals the show and holds his own against Ferrell in scenes they share together; Reilly is known for his buddy roles/second banana parts and it’s nice to see him get more to do. Gary Cole is perfectly cast as a not-so father figure who shows up, dispenses cryptic advice, then starts a fight and vanishes before anyone has a chance to latch onto his emotions. Michael Clarke Duncan, Amy Adams, and a dozen others all take a moment away from Farrell for their own laugh or two before turning the film back over to its star.
Like Adam Sandler, who has happily settled into a rhythm for his features that’s less likable “angryman” and more lovable everyman, Will Farrell continues to find fodder for film that entertains the masses. Of course, NASCAR got a say in the final cut and even voted down a few scenes that might have caused trouble, but stay for the credits for funny bits they just couldn’t squeeze in but had to show us anyway. Drive fast, Ricky Bobby, drive fast.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)