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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

From the start, it would seem that Will Ferrell became a superstar against all expectations. Growing up in middle-class suburban Irvine, Calif., about the only notable thing that can be said of his youth is that his father played keyboards for The Righteous Brothers. Ferrell himself wasn't even much of a class clown and was best known among fellow students as an athlete. His interest in sports led him to the University of Southern California in the late-'80s, where he studied broadcasting. In fact, it was only after he hooked up with the legendary L.A. improv troupe The Groundlings that Ferrell appeared to pursue performing in earnest, eventually winning a prized spot on NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live." Still, he wasn't an immediate sensation — he didn't have the stand-up background that many of his peers shared, nor could stand out the way that Eddie Murphy or Dennis Miller did. Some would say that Ferrell wasn't a personality at all, but instead, as he put it, "the guy who does the cheerleader thing." Nonetheless, when Ferrell concluded his long run with the show he was the cast's biggest earner. Unfortunately, despite his many memorable bits (and this is the guy who coined the word "strategery"), Ferrell's early film efforts met with mixed results. Movie stars require the sort of singular personality that Ferrell studiously avoided on television, and it wasn't until Old School (2003) that he first clicked with audiences as Frank "The Tank" Ricard. Since then, Ferrell has become as big on the screen as he was on the tube, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) reveals he's as bankable as ever.

Will Ferrell stars as the title character in Talladega Nights, racecar driver Ricky Bobby, who rose from a broken home to join a NASCAR pit crew and eventually earn his shot at stardom when his team's driver developed a sudden ennui about hurtling around an oval track at 200 mph. And success has brought Ricky Bobby many things, including a top spot on the Dennit Racing team, owned by the equivocal Larry Dennit Jr. (Greg Germann). It's also brought fame to his #2 driver, Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), who's propelled Ricky into several winner's circles with his "slingshot" maneuver. And success has brought Ricky a wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), who's "smokin' hot," as well as two sons, Walker and Texas Ranger. But after Ricky gets into a feud with Larry Dennit, he soon finds that he has a brand-new teammate, Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Frenchman who's determined to conquer NASCAR and prove that Ricky Bobby is not the fastest man on wheels. Ricky's prepared to defend America against heavily accented, jazz-loving homosexual oenophiles such as Girard — however, an unexpected crash robs him of his confidence, and before long he's too mentally unstable to compete. Races aren't the only thing he's losing either. After his wife and best friend turn on him, Ricky can only turn to his mom (Jane Lynch), who makes the daring move of tracking down Ricky's deadbeat father Reese (Gary Cole), who maybe — just maybe — can teach Ricky Bobby how to drive again.

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Two things virtually guaranteed that Talladega Nights would be a $148-million smash at the U.S. box-office — Will Ferrell and NASCAR. Ferrell's newfound movie-star status may have been long overdue, but there no denying that he's America's top comedy draw thanks to his broad Everyman appeal. As for NASCAR, it's surprising that the United States's fastest growing spectator sport hasn't had more movies made about it up to now, ensuring that many die-hard fans would turn up at Nights just to see the spectacular crashes and cameos by top drivers. However, Talladega Nights does have two subversive secret weapons: John C. Reilly and Sacha Baron Cohen. A supporting player noted for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Reilly's comic sensibility has always been one of his notable gifts, but he earns howls of laughter here as the high-on-fumes Cal Naughton, Jr., proving that he can riff with some of the best in the business. And among the best we must count Sacha Baron Cohen. Like Ferrell, he's a comedian who prefers to stay in character — be it Ali G or Borat — and reveal little of himself to the public. His Jean Girard is yet another memorable figure, the sort of Red State nightmare that, as Ricky says, makes him feel "like I'm in Highlander." Thanks to the enormous talent on the screen (including Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Michael Clarke Duncan, and David Koechner), Talladega Nights has the license to be light on plot, and in fact it's obvious that the film's best moments are the product of free-form improv (a fact borne out by the DVD's supplements). Passably good comedy may involve clever sayings or awkward situations, but there's something about sublime humor that's more like jazz, where musicians will improv over the same material again and again until they nail it and know it's right, even if it's inexplicable and ethereal and can't be repeated again. Talladega Nights may have a script that's as pure formula as Jean Giraud's open-wheel racecars, but it's filled out by these small, wonderful moments, all of which will earn the film untold repeat viewings at home.

Sony's DVD release of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a facetious, somewhat pointless commentary track with director/co-writer Adam McKay and co-star Ian Roberts, but the bulk of the supplments cry out for an extended-cut DVD. Nine deleted/alternate scenes are as amusing as the film itself, while a "Gag Reel" (2 min.), "Line-O-Rama" (5 min.), "Walker & Texas Ranger" (5 min.), "Ricky and Cal's Commercials" (2 min.), "Ricky & Cal's Public Service Announcements" (2 min.), and three extended interview segments reveal just how much effort the cast put into the material. Other extras include "Will Ferrell Returns to Talladega" (5 min.), "Bonus Race Footage" (1 min.), a NASCAR page, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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