Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay have hit upon a formula that works for them, and they're sticking with it. The pair's previous big-screen collaboration, 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, goosed TV newsrooms while simultaneously skewering the Dumb American Male over a fire pit. Its humor was silly, largely improvisational and devoted to a spirit of anarchy.
That movie's basic plotline -- self-satisfied macho idiot wins it all, then loses it all -- is grafted on to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. This time around, the jabs are aimed at NASCAR culture instead of TV news. But unlike Anchorman, Talladega Nights feels more like an actual movie and less like a series of flimsily connected sketches.
Ferrell stars as cocky Ricky Bobby, destined for the literal fast track from the moment he is blasted out of his mother's womb in the backseat of a speeding Chevelle. "If you ain't first, you're last," his pot-dealing, no-account father (Gary Cole) tells young Ricky, instilling in the boy a lifelong obsession with winning. Ricky rises quickly to NASCAR stardom, acquiring all the trappings of southern-fried success, including a lakeside mansion, blonde trophy wife (Leslie Bibb) and two foulmouthed boys named, of course, Walker and Texas Ranger (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell).
Ricky's need for speed is rivaled only by his oversized ego, and so he flips out when a Formula One champion racer, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame), arrives on the scene. Girard is everything that Ricky and his best friend and fellow racer, Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), fear and loathe. Girard is a gay French intellectual who reads Camus and sips macchiato, sometimes in the middle of racing.
Ricky Bobby buckles under the stress of this newfound competition. After a bone-crushing crash, he suffers a nervous breakdown and -- this being a Will Ferrell movie -- runs around a racetrack, stripped down to his BVDs. So begins his downfall. He suffers delusions that he is paralyzed and eventually lands work delivering pizzas on a bicycle while his gold-digger wife, Carly, shacks up with Cal. Will our hero bounce back and redeem himself?
Talladega Nights is unmistakably a Will Ferrell vehicle, but the actor is magnanimous enough to allow plenty of shining moments for a first-rate supporting cast that includes Michael Clarke Duncan, Amy Adams and Molly Shannon. In an environment that obviously relied on improv, Reilly, Cohen and Bibb are uniformly terrific; Cohen is a particular standout, sporting the most tortured French accent since Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.
As they did in Anchorman, co-writers Ferrell and McKay employ a kitchen sink aesthetic, hurling gobs of running gags against the wall in hopes that enough shtick sticks. To their credit, much of it is hilarious. There are several memorable set pieces, especially an uproarious dinner scene in which Ricky directs his prayer of grace to "baby Christmas Jesus," (8 lbs, 9 oz., if you're curious) Ricky's preferred incarnation of Christ.
Moreover, Talladega Nights is one of the few motion pictures in recent memory in which shameless product placement actually works, reflecting NASCAR's obsession with corporate sponsorship. You have to admire any movie that actually interrupts its climax for an Applebee's commercial.
The "unrated" DVD boasts 13 minutes of additional footage, but parts of this rejiggered version actually dilute some of the humor. For whatever reason, Jean Girard now credits France with the "blow job" instead of the "ménage-a-trois" – a rather odd, and nonsensical, rewriting. A few new bits -- such as a conversation about getting a gigolo for an 88-year-old grandmother -- are gratuitous. A smattering of scenes from the theatrical version, including one in which a young Ricky Bobby steals his mother's car while she's buying milk, are now inexplicably absent. And still other vignettes, while funny, are extended to the point that they lose their punch.
Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is absolutely first-rate, with bright colors, rich detail and a sharp image.
The sound is crisp and clear, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track doesn't utilize back speakers as much as one would expect for a motion picture about auto racing. Subtitles are available in English and French.
One thing you can bank on with DVDs of largely adlibbed movies; there will be plenty of supplemental material that ended up on the cutting room floor. That's surely the case with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Fans are rewarded with a rich bounty of bonuses.
The only real disappointment, in fact, is a commentary by director/co-writer Adam McKay and actor Ian Roberts, who appears in the film. McKay spoofs the arrogance and pretentiousness that drips from so many commentaries, but the joke grows tiresome and -- stretched across the length of the entire feature -- plain unbearable. Maybe that's the point. If so, mission accomplished.
Thankfully, the other extras more than make up for the commentary. Nine deleted and extended scenes (which have a combined running time of 25 minutes, 20 seconds) are generally funny; some of the material probably deserved to make the final cut. We get more scenes with Amy Adams as Ricky's personal assistant, Susan. If included in the theatrical version, such footage would have helped ease the character into the third act, where she suddenly takes on a quasi-critical role. The deleted scenes also showcase the considerable comedic skills of Leslie Bibb and John C. Reilly.
Similarly, a five-minute, 22-second line-o-rama is essential, terrific stuff -- montage of adlibs that didn't make the final cut.
Other supplemental material nixed from the theatrical version includes: Ricky and Cal's commercials (1:35), Ricky and Cal's public service announcements (2:31) and a five-minute, 40-second grouping of some wonderful outtakes with Walker and Texas Ranger.
Fake interviews with the characters of Talladega Nights, however, strain the gag. This features Ricky and Cal (5:30), Jean Girard and his husband Gregory (3:39) and Cal and Carly (4:12). Intermittently entertaining.
Will Ferrell Returns to Talladega is a five-minute, 20-second clip of the actor making an appearance at the celebrated raceway sometime after the completion of the film. Ferrell is quick-witted, funny and likeable in his interactions with racecar drivers and enthusiasts.
Also included is a theatrical trailer, a two-minute, 27-second gag reel and bonus race footage that clocks in at one minute, 18 seconds.
The DVD also has previews for The Pursuit of Happyness, Ghost Rider, The Da Vinci Code, Little Man, Click, Curse of the Golden Flower, An Evening with Kevin Smith: Evening Harder, Seinfeld Season 7 and Coming to Blu-Ray.
The impulse of DVD producers to dress up already released films with "unrated" versions is always a dicey affair. Typically, there are solid reasons that certain footage was left on the cutting-room floor. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, however, is an interesting case. While the 13 minutes added to the film are hit-or-miss, a fair amount of what we find in the DVD's "deleted and extended scenes" is good stuff. Regardless, Will Ferrell fans would be well-advised to race out and pick up this extras-laden DVD of a movie that might just be his funniest to date.