he’s that dumb: Ferrell in Talladega Nights.
in the Pack
John Rodat Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
by Adam McKay
gossip has it that the producers of Talladega Nights: The
Ballad of Ricky Bobby pitched the movie to studios with
just six words: “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.” However
apocryphal the rumor, there’s a kind of spiritual truth to
it; because that premise either sounds hysterical to you,
or it doesn’t. You don’t really need to know a whole lot more
about the movie to know absolutely everything about the movie.
plays the titular Ricky Bobby, a North Carolinian cracker
whose deadbeat dad (Gary Cole) abandoned him after instilling
in his boy an addiction to vehicular speed and one life lesson:
“You’re either first, or you’re last.” And so, in a regrettable
and dull introductory montage, we see young Ricky engaging
in a developmental process composed exclusively of various
high-speed antics, all the while uttering his mantra, “I want
to go fast.” Eventually his single- mindedness earns adult
Ricky the top slot on the NASCAR circuit. He’s a figure of
Dale Earnhardt-like celebrity and reverence—and ego. Of course,
hubris being what it is, this leads to a fall, and a reevaluation
of personal priorities and a comeback, and blah, blah. None
of which really matters—or for that matter, appeals—in the
does, or should, matter is the establishment of character.
Here, Talladega Nights has some moments. Ferrell’s
depiction of Ricky is, at times, very funny. His interactions
with teammate and lifelong best friend Cal Naughton Jr. (a
very, very funny John C. Reilly) are consistently inspired.
Unfortunately, there’s no real support for these characters.
Unlike Anchorman, the previous collaboration
of Ferrell and director Adam McKay, there’s no real ensemble
work. In that earlier film the heavy lifting was shared by
a kind of comedic all-star cast—Dave Koechner, Steve Carell,
Paul Rudd, Fred Willard—all of whom easily held their own.
With the exception of Reilly, none of the secondary players
in Talladega Nights rises to that same level, despite
the inclusion of some names from the improv comedy world—Koechner
again, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jane Lynch, Andy Richter, Molly
Shannon, and others. So, you’re left with a whole lot of Ferrell,
in a role slightly less batshit insane—and therefore, more
predictable and less funny—than anchorman Ron Burgundy.
and McKay had trusted their improv backgrounds and focused
more on character-driven comedy and less on the redneck-Rocky
plot, they might have had something. (Stick around for the
credit-sequence outtakes for a hint of what might have been.)
As it stands, Talladega Nights is OK, if you like that
kind of thing.
Thrill Is Gone The Night Listener
by Peter Stettner
are a few surprising things about The Night Listener.
Most immediately noticeable among them is that this movie,
which has all the trappings of a thriller, is pretty well
devoid of any thrill. Also surprising, star Robin Williams
is not particularly annoying. Imagine. (Less central, but
interesting nonetheless: Williams’ character is gay and yet
this aspect of his character is, for the most part, coincidental.
It’s a pleasure to see a gay character whose existence is
not wholly bound up in his sexual orientation.)
plays Gabriel Noone, a radio personality specializing in autobiographical
storytelling. Gabriel, by his own admission, mines his life
for the sparkling moments, the dramatic moments, and has gained
a devoted national audience by scripting and divulging these
moments. His craft, however, is not universally lauded: His
live-in boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), has wearied of
Gabriel’s creative recall, his tenuous grasp of the facts
of his—and their shared—life, and has moved out.
fills some of the emptiness created by Jess’ departure with
a telephone relationship with the author of a yet-to-be-published
book, given to him in manuscript form by a friend in publishing.
The author claims to be a 14-year-old survivor of horrific
sexual abuse now living with AIDS, cared for by an adoptive
guardian. Thing is, the boy and his guardian, Donna (Toni
Collette), sound remarkably alike. Identical, in fact. And,
turns out, no one but the guardian seems to have ever seen
the boy. And all of the guardian’s facile explanations for
the boy’s inaccessibility are impossible to verify. And .
. . and so, she may be a total nutjob.
emotional attachment to this possibly fictive boy and his
attachment—and none-too-subtly scripted parallels—to the crafter
of this possible fiction motivate him to seek the truth. Here
the movie’s atmosphere turns thrillerish: Gabriel leaves New
York City for creepy fly-over country. There are night scenes
in decrepit houses and bleak hospital corridors; there are
suspicious, vaguely menacing bumpkins and frightening hayseed
cops. Noone, out of his element and seemingly out of his league,
is threatened and bullied and generally gotten the better
of by Donna, who may be fully psychotic. But you don’t really
care and you’re not really scared. All the hallmarks of horror
are there, but it rings false.
is, perhaps, in part because the actors turn in pretty restrained—for
Williams, amazingly restrained—performances. Williams does
a fine job rendering Gabriel’s wounded, displaced and confused
neediness; Colette is excellent as the awkward and damaged
Donna. And Rory Culkin does as much as he can with a character
who may or may not be imaginary. Such natural and affecting
portrayals don’t match the “boo, gotcha!” vibe of the movie’s
visuals or structure.
movie didn’t need suspense, which may explain the filmmaker’s
complete failure in getting any in there.