Duck Soup is the funniest movie ever. It’s pure comedic anarchy – the Marx Bros set free to do whatever the hell they wanted. The world doesn’t always understand that kind of madcap genius, though, and for their next film they were a little reigned in. A Night at the Opera is, hands down, a classic, but you have to wade through some crummy musical numbers to get to the comedy. Plus the energy of the Marx Bros have been harnassed, put towards furthering a love plot. For some people this makes sense – for them a movie should have a story, and the comedy should be in service to it. I prefer the sheer madness of Duck Soup, though, a movie which tips its hat at a storyline but doesn’t want to have much to do with one.
Anchorman is like Duck Soup. I really believe that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell captured the spirit of the Marx Bros in that film – not the specifics, since they don’t have that delirious Groucho word play, but in the general sense of anything can and will happen for a gag. And in the sense that no matter how dumb things get, the gags are guided by an intelligence.
That makes Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby their A Night at the Opera. Where Anchorman stumbled along a path that might have once been a storyline, Talladega Nights has an honest to God plot, and even a character arc or two. It means the jokes don’t come as relentlessly as they did in Anchorman, but this time they have a higher percentage of gags that work on the first viewing.
Ricky Bobby is born into speed, quite literally. He’s the best NASCAR driver on the track, and he’s created a mini-empire. He’s rich, he has a best friend who has his bumper on the track, he has a smoking hot wife and he has two precocious kids, Walker and Texas Ranger. He has it all until a French Formula 1 player comes to America with the express purpose of beating him. There’s a bad crash which becomes a turning point – the stress of his life catches up to him and Ricky Bobby cracks up. Fortunes change and Ricky Bobby finds himself penniless and dumped. He moves back in with his mother and begins delivering pizzas – on a bike. Eventually he has to turn to his absentee father to help him regain his nerves behind the wheel and then his title in NASCAR.
On paper it’s a pretty straight forward sports movie, but this has been written by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, and it’s populated with some of the funniest people in the movie industry today. I can’t even begin to list the great jokes here – a) it would ruin them for you and b) this would be a book-length review. Talladega Nights is hands down the funniest film of the year, packing in laugh after laugh. While there’s a more standard plotline in this film the comedy plays very much in a similar absurdist Anchorman way, except that this time it’s tethered to something besides the desire to make you laugh.
I judge comedies by how bad they make me feel. The funnier the movie the worse I feel afterwards, and after seeing Talladega Nights I walked out of the theater with a headache and sore throat and a stomach cramp from laughing so much. I feel like I should have apologized to everyone else at my screening because I laughed so loud and so long. And much like with the Marx Brothers, the laughs I got from the film are deceptively smart – McKay and Ferrell slip in sly satires of consumerism, Christianity and even the United States, all sugared up nicely enough that a general audience will gladly swallow them.
Ferrell’s had a tough year at the movies, but he bounces back completely here. Clueless pompous asshole is his specialty, and there’s little more clueless than a NASCAR driver (unless it’s a NASCAR fan. Flame away all you want, but I attended a NASCAR race earlier this summer and the humanity on display barely earned that sobriquet. No wonder these people don’t believe in evolution – they see no evidence of it among themselves). The thing about Ferrell is that he just isn’t that funny on his own (see: Bewitched). He has the kind of talent that needs to be bouncing off of people, and so he works best in ensembles. The chemistry in Anchorman seemed impossible to top, but I think that happens in Talladega Nights. He and John C Reilly are so perfect together that it’s scary.
Reilly’s Cal Naughton Jr is so clueless as to be almost a holy fool. He’s forever number two to Ricky Bobby, and thinks that he’s happy there – until the opportunity to advance presents itself. Reilly is maybe our ultimate portrayer of best friends, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Ferrell and Reilly work together so seamlessly that it’s a bummer that the second half of the film keeps them apart, but the good news is that McKay has announced his next film will be reteaming these two.
Gary Cole is the film’s secret weapon, though. He plays Reese Bobby, the degenerate father who tries to help Ricky Bobby get his nerve back by making him drive with a cougar. Occasionally the story veers to territory that threatens to be saccharine, but Cole always makes sure that everything stays skeezy and absurd.
If Cole is the secret weapon, Sascha Baron Cohen is the atom bomb. Better known to audiences as Ali G, Cohen plays Ricky Bobby’s ultimate nemesis – a gay French man who is a better driver. Frankly there’s too little of Cohen in the movie; I could have watched much more of him and listened to his ridiculous accent. Andy Richter makes an all-too brief cameo as his lover.
The biggest problem with Talladega Nights stems from the fact that it’s more plot-oriented. McKay and his cast tend to improvise things and pack the film with jokes and extra scenes – the original cut of this film ran maybe a half hour longer. The movie has to get cut down to a more manageable length (although I am sure we’ll see a bunch of stuff on DVD, a la Anchorman), but here you can feel some of the cuts. The plot moves along a little too briskly, giving you the feeling that you’re missing something, a feeling you never got from Anchorman, even when there was almost a whole movie cut out of it.
The test for Talladega Nights won’t be the first viewing. The test will be whether, like Anchorman, it holds up to repeated viewings. There’s a lot in Anchorman that didn’t work the first time I saw the movie, but steady repetition allowed me to slowly embrace those jokes. Talladega Nights feels, on first viewing, more complete, like there’s less need to let things grow on you. Anchorman also works on repeat viewings because it’s so free-form in many ways; I wonder if the plot of Talladega Nights will work against it in the future.
Still, those are thoughts for a DVD review. Whatever will work seven viewings from now is beyond the scope of this – what matters is that you won’t have seen anything this funny in a theater since… well, maybe since Anchorman.