That Will Ferrell is a Marmite kind of guy, but love him or hate him, there's a certain quality to him that you just can't ignore. Having graduated to the grand overlord of the Frat Pack over the last few years (by default more than anything: put out enough movies and you'll rise through the ranks), Ferrell divides audiences like no other comedian around; some love his wonderfully insane brand of comedy, others loathe his line of laboured lunacy. When he's off form, he's awful (see Bewitched, Kicking And Screaming etc.) but when he's firing on all cylinders, there's no stopping him. So under which category does Talladega Nights fall? Frustratingly, it's neither: Ricky Bobby is a character tailor made for Ferrell, but it's a set-up that falls short of Anchorman greatness.
Ferrell is reunited here with director pal Adam McKay, but while the adventures of Ron Burgundy played out like a collection of character sketches linked loosely together, Talladega Nights follows a much more linear plotline: being a ballad and all, it's the rise and fall of another of Ferrell's 'Average American' characters that he plays so well. Ricky Bobby is a NASCAR driver, which, for those of you without beer-dispensing helmets and giant foam hands, means driving around in a circle lots and lots. Ricky lives by the motto "If you ain't first, you're last" and is blessed with a smoking hot wife in Carley (Leslie Bibb, a "stone cold fox"), two feisty kids named Walker and Texas Ranger and an adoring team mate in Cal Naughton Jr. (Reilly), with whom he forms an unbeatable racing partnership ("Shake and bake!"). However, when gay French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Baron Cohen) arrives on the scene, Ricky has a rival that might just topple the big hairy American winning machine from his throne as #1. So yeah, it's Days Of Thunder, only slightly less ridiculous.
The problem with the way Ferrell works is that his methods are always going to be a bit hit and miss. Too often scenes descend into improvised exchanges that lack the sparkle of the script, the face-offs between Ferrell and Cohen in particular: both funny guys without question, but it's a bit rich to expect us to laugh uproariously at every utterance that's conjured from the top of their heads. One early improvised scene in a bar lingers like an unwelcome fart as the joke is thrashed to within an inch of its life, failing to produce even a half-hearted chuckle in a painful couple of minutes. No, the real laughs are had with the scripted gags: Ricky's proclamation that "I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence", gems like the family grace (sponsored by Powerade) and his hilarious response to his car accident are much more like it. The whole movie has an unfinished quality to it that may well be due to scenes of improv being cut short for pacing issues - the trailer alone has several moments that didn't make it into final cut, and some characters are gifted with but a few lines, roles that will surely be extended on the DVD.
Even though the film is based around the fact that Ricky Bobby is a complete arse, it's easy to get tired of his 'I'm number one' mentality: the supporting cast are often much more interesting. Reilly, who has never before shown a comic flair save for an Adam Sandler movie here and there, is a riot as lapdog best buddy Cal, Ricky's clueless co-driver - his porno-past confession, in which he admits to having posed naked under the name 'Mike Honcho' is priceless ("I spread mah butt cheeks!"). Cohen's character Girard is repellent in the extreme - as a homosexual Gallic driver who can turn both left and
right, he's everything Americans fear the most - and although the outraaaageous French accent is a hoot, he's really little more than a foil to Ferrell's brand of USA store-bought bravado. Gary Cole as Ricky's pot-dealin' daddy does his best with an underwritten role, as does Amy Adams (save for a great speech in the final act) but all too often the frame is 100% Ferrell. A movie this goofy needs a real ensemble cast to make it work (where would Ron Burgundy have been without Brian, Brick and Champ?) but Talladega Nights has got Big Willy Style written all over it.
It is funny, that's not in doubt. There's a good handful of laugh-out-loud moments - the cougar incident, Ricky selling advertising space on his windscreen, the 'knife in leg' accident you've seen in the trailer - and some undisputable talent onboard, but it lacks the quotability of the best of Ferrell's back catalogue and the heart that made The 40 Year-Old Virgin so watchable. It's daft as a brush and revels in its silliness, but it still doesn't scratch that post-Anchorman itch - the quest to find the new Ron Burgundy still continues. Bringing back that Marmite metaphor one final time, it's still a love it or hate it deal: it'll either leave you with a sour taste in your mouth, or there's nothing else you'd rather spread on your comedy bread.