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Yes, he’s that dumb: Ferrell in Talladega Nights.

Back in the Pack

By John Rodat Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Directed by Adam McKay

Industry 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.

Ferrell 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 slightest.

What 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.

If Ferrell 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.

The Thrill Is Gone The Night Listener

Directed by Peter Stettner

There 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.)

Williams 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.

Gabriel 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.

Gabriel’s 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.

This 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.

This movie didn’t need suspense, which may explain the filmmaker’s complete failure in getting any in there.

—John Rodat

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