It doesn't matter how many times you see it, there's always something funny about watching Will Ferrell run around with his clothes off while yelling like a buffoon. Maybe it's the chubby, imperfect body that he so freely shows off, or the confounded facial expression that suggests everyone else is crazy for looking at him. Either way, he keeps his underwear on the two times he strips down in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which ranks next to Old School as one of the funniest movies he's made.
This is a comedy that works because it has no qualms about its idiocy. "If you ain't first, you're last," Ricky Bobby's (Ferrell) deadbeat and absentee father (a very funny Gary Cole) told him when he was young, and as an adult Ricky Bobby is the top-rated driver on the NASCAR circuit. He's so famous that he signs autographs on babies' heads, women's breasts and even one for real-life driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ricky's fame also brings great riches, a beautiful wife named Carley (Leslie Bibb), sons Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger (Grayson Russell), and a spacious North Carolina mansion. Ricky also has the unconditional support of lifelong best friend Cal (John C. Reilly), a fellow driver who always ensures that Ricky wins.
But as is the case in bare-bones storylines such as this, Ricky must fall to rock bottom and triumphantly rise to the top again. And so when French standout Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) shows up to challenge Ricky, we know trouble is not far off.
Writer/director Adam McKay (who also made Anchorman with Ferrell) has accomplished the difficult feat of a three-act structure in which each portion is just as funny as the others. As funny as it is watching Ricky not even try to be humble as he embraces his success, and the shameless product placement that even non-racing fans know is a huge part of NASCAR, it's just as funny watching Ricky conquer his fears with a cougar in the backseat and finishing the big race in the most unpredictable of ways. And if you can't laugh at the low-brow humor of foul-mouthed, pretentiously-tough kids and scenes like Ricky using his legs to kick people during a game of wheelchair basketball, then this just isn't the movie for you.
Ferrell, who co-wrote the script with McKay, is entertaining playing yet another variation on his screen persona, and the rest of the cast (including Michael Clarke Duncan as his pit boss and Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (Junebug) as a love interest) ably pulls its weight. But the real standout and surprise is Reilly, whom we know is a great dramatic actor and can sing (as his Oscar nomination for Chicago proves), but here he shows just how versatile and funny he is. It says a lot about his talent that he can hold his own with Ferrell on comic delivery, and improvise lines that you couldn't imagine being written for him.
You know a NASCAR-themed movie has done something right when the women in the theater are laughing just as hard as the men.