Talladega Nights – 5 stars

It is in vogue to denigrate Will Ferrell, whose excess has long outlived its freshness. He’s slogged into one tiresome, repetitive project after another. Land of the Lost? A one-man show portrayal of George W Bush, The Other Guys, Casa di mi Padre, The Campaign, and soon, a repeat, Anchorman: The Legend Continues. His forays into a successful Jim Carrey-like branch-off started with promise (Stranger than Fiction) but his dramatic weaknesses were apparent in Everything Must Go. His last goofy semi-triumph was Step Brothers, which owed as much to the supporting efforts of the scene-stealing, diabolical Adam Scott and the inspired premise as to Ferrell’s adolescent sincerity as the arrested man-child, Brennan Huff.

Let us not forget, however, that when Ferrell was on a roll, it was an impressive one – Old School, Elf, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers . . . all a variation on the man-child theme, but classics nonetheless.

At the end of Ferrell’s run is Talladega Nights, the last hurrah, but what a hurrah.  Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, an ignorant, flashy, uber-American NASCAR driver with a hot blonde wife (Leslie Bibb), a loyal race car compadre (John C. Reilly) who loves Ricky so much he happily takes second in every race, two horrific kids (Walker and Texas Ranger) and a gay French nemesis on the track (Sacha Baron Cohen). When Ricky is on top, it looks something like this:

When it all goes to crap after a brutal wreck, Ricky must re-connect with the itinerant father who abandoned him as a child (Gary Cole) and his old-school mother (Jane Lynch). With their help, and the help of a loyal, starstruck flunky (Amy Adams), Ricky regains his mojo and lives the VH1 comeback before our eyes.

The gags are inspired, the back-and-forth (much of which has to be improv, as evidenced by the bloopers in the credits) crackles, almost every supporting character delivers well (Molly Shannon as the boozehound wife of a corporate slime is particularly prime), and the chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly, which was very good in Step Brothers, is undeniable. After Ricky loses his nerve and then all, Cal replaces him, setting up in Ricky’s house and with his wife. But they do miss each other:

It’s uproarious, loaded with gem slogans (“If you ain’t first, you’re last”) and has as much fun as you can have with American excess. Even as silly an endeavor as this could have come off condescending and mean to “those NASCAR types” but Talladega Nights feels wholly respectful even as it goes to town on its target.

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