Honestly, I don’t have a goddamn clue what it is about his inane, non-sequiturial ramblings that I like; all I know is that a Will Ferrell who tries to make sense (Bewitched) or act age appropriate (Kicking and Screaming) is not a Will Ferrell I care to see. In fact, whatever the elusive Ferrellian quality is that attracts us to him also seems to be his undoing. To wit: If he does what we love, he’s a one-trick equine whose shtick ran aground soon after Anchorman; but if he tries anything new, all we want is more of the old cotton-headed ninny-muggins that made him a star. In fact, unlike anyone else I can think of, Ferrell’s comedic success seems to be inversely proportional to his level of coherence; and, in that way, I suppose that makes him George W. Bush of Hollywood — a guy whose appeal lies mysteriously within his obliviousness.
But I do think there’s a certain level of self-awareness to his shtick; we know that there is a flicker of intelligence beneath that blissful ignorance, because his brand of theater of the absurd requires a level of disjunction that is beyond the tiny brains of Sandler, Schneider, Knoxville, etc., and we appreciate that Ferrell never acknowledges his own cognition. At his best, what’s so compelling about Will Ferrell is the magical ability to sell his brand of ga-ga absurdity with doe-eyed sincerity. Is there anyone else (besides Steve Carell, arguably) who could extract a laugh out of the line, “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means: a whale’s vagina.”?
Indeed, I don’t like to think of Will Ferrell’s brand of comedy as a higher-brow Adam Sandler; I like to think of him as a low-brow Christopher Guest. He’s like the inebriated, macho-retard amalgamation of Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, and Michael McKean and, in that way, he appeals to the high-end of our lower brain functions, which (I think) makes it OK for the McSweeney’s crowd to get a guilt-free kick out of him.
Of course, my fondness for Will Ferrell exists mostly in theory; when I find myself sharing a theater with actual NASCAR fans and a bunch of suburban brats who just stumbled in from Chili’s, I start to question my own thesis. Maybe I just like loutish roughneck humor, and maybe, in my mind, esoteric is just a euphemism for scatological. I dunno. But at least my theory gives hipsters and faux-hipsters alike something to cling to when those Patton Oswalt groupies decry Will Ferrell as the demise of cinema.
Anyway, we can all probably agree that Ferrell’s comedy is an acquired taste that requires the right state of mind, but — unlike Kevin Smith — there is nothing generational about it. Either you like ferociously brilliant egomaniacal gibberish, or you don’t. And if you got your rocks off on Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby probably won’t disappoint, because both films have the same improvisational feel, the sense that talented comedians are playing a dirty-word association game in front of a bevy of rolling cameras. Unfortunately, Ricky Bobby doesn’t have the same manic energy of Adam McKay’s predecessor, and though there are plenty of gags that generate a healthy amount of laughter, it’s just not as infectious as Anchorman, never really pulling your jugular out and showing it to you, opting instead to gently brush up against it with a rusty straight razor.
The film tracks Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) — born in a the backseat of a speeding car to a reprobate, speed-addicted deadbeat, Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) — who grows up treasuring his dope-smoking father’s only bit of wisdom: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” He and his best bud, Cal (John C. Reilly), eventually become the drivers for the Wonder Bread racing team, a successful “shake n’ bake” duo that rises to #1 and #2 in the racing world, delivering Crazy People-inspired pitches for Old Spice, Taco Bell, and Dominos. Jesus, of course, is also a big part of their lives, so long as he’s in infant form, and so long as they’re allowed to break from grace to give a nod to PowerAde and its new Mystic Mountain Blueberry flavor (“You made grace your bitch, Dad”).
All is well in the world until the team owner (Greg Germann) brings in a third member, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), Ricky’s French, macchiato drinking Apollo Creed, who also happens to be gay (married to Andy Richter in a throwaway role). Normally, I’m a fan of Sacha — at least as his Ali G persona — but the mangled, French-speaking femme didn’t really work for me, mostly because there’s no basis for the caricature other than myths created by our country’s patriotic xenophobes and, besides, The Incredibles already lampooned that fiction to better effect. At any rate, Jean Girard is the ultimate undoing of Ricky Bobby, driving him to post-crash hysteria; he loses his speed, his job, and his wife, to Cal of all people, who doesn’t quite understand why Ricky would be so upset [and as good as Reilly is in this role, he really doesn’t compare to his Anchorman counterpart, Brick Tamland (“Years later, a doctor will tell me that I have an IQ of 48 and am what some people call ‘mentally retarded’”)].
Re-enter Reese Bobby, who nurses Ricky back to driving status, in an extended version of all the things you’ve already seen in the adverts, preparing him for his triumphant return to Talladega Nights, though wouldn’t you know that what really does the trick is a Journey song and Amy Adams doing her best Tawny Kitaen. Adams, too, is wasted to some degree, but — with apologies to Ryan Reynolds — there is no one in Hollywood I have a bigger crush on, so any screen time she is given is gravy.
Ricky Bobby certainly has its moments; the parody of Red-state culture works for the most part (the McMansion is priceless) — and unlike Larry the Cable Guy, it is satire and not just a string of stupid redneck potshots — and there are some classic, off-the-wall lines, like an inspirational quote attributed to Colonel Sanders: “I’m too drunk to taste the chicken.” But the second half of Ricky Bobby fades quickly; as soon as Ricky’s blowhard egomania is replaced with hackneyed moralism, the entire conceit is lost. Once you fill Ferrell’s empty head with anything other than hot air and coco-meth, all is lost, and there aren’t any of the usual Frat Pack cameos to enliven things. Worst of all, however, is that Ricky Bobby does devolve into an Adam Sandler-like trick-ending, which — I have to concede — hurt my heart a little. Still, Clerks II notwithstanding, it’s the funniest film to come along this summer; it’s just a goddamn shame that the inspiration ran out three-quarters through.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Sweet Baby Jesus!
Film | August 10, 2006 | Comments ()