The recent run of hit comedies from the Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson axis have been funny but sloppy, stringing together killer comic setpieces with weak stories and random nonsense. The new NASCAR-themed comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby—conceived by Ferrell and his Anchorman collaborator Adam McKay—may go too far in the other direction. It's got a fairly tight plot, with Ferrell playing a dim-but-fearless, all-American racecar driver whose confidence is shaken when a gay Frenchman (Ali G. creator Sacha Baron Cohen) bests him for circuit supremacy. As Ferrell works his way back with the help of his deadbeat dad Gary Cole, Talladega Nights becomes more or less a straight-up sports flick, hitting all the upbeats with not enough crazy.
But when the crazy comes, it's pretty good crazy. Ferrell is in full-on brazen redneck mode, doing a variation on his Saturday Night Live George W. Bush impression—arguably, though not consistently, to make a point about the damage wrought by a "U.S.A. #1!" political philosophy. In one of Talladega Nights' laugh-out-loud sequences, Ferrell delivers a rambling dinner grace that redefines Jesus the way Ferrell's character likes Him (as a baby, not a hairy hippie); in another, Ferrell sticks a knife into his leg because he refuses to listen to anyone who tells him he isn't paralyzed.
McKay, like Peyton Reed and too few other contemporary comedy directors, seems to understand how a movie should look. Talladega Nights' racing scenes are solidly constructed, and McKay plays with tight close-ups and handheld camera shots in ways that go against the usual visual grammar of comedy, but still pay off. Still, Talladega Nights is slight and wasteful, getting little use out of Cole or Cohen—the latter actually sucks the laughs out of the room every time he shows up—and missing chances to up-shift from spoof to satire. No one's ever accused this current comedy generation of being ambitious, but they're obviously smart, and at some point they need to use all that intelligence for something better than slyly playing dumb.