When it comes to big-name Hollywood comedies, summer has shaped up to be the cinematic equivalent of a 25-car pileup, with everyone from Vince Vaughn to Owen Wilson limping away from fuming wrecks. That's the bad news. The good news is that, just as the season's finish line comes into view, Will Ferrell is back in his best vehicle since Anchorman.
Which makes sense, since The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Ballad of Ricky Bobby are both collaborations with writer-director Adam McKay. (What do you bet their next project has the word "saga" in its title?) The former satirized television news and the megalomania of an empty-headed star reporter. The latter satirizes the whole NASCAR scene and the megalomania of an empty-headed redneck driver. We all watch TV news. We don't all tune in to the races. Fortunately for moviegoers, you don't need to know Formula One from baby formula to know this is finger-licking funny stuff.
Born in the back of a speeding car, Ferrell's character grows up consumed with the idea of someday driving fast. The obsession leads him to life as a member of the pit crew for a driver whose career is in the pits. The fellow has grown so indifferent to coming in last, in fact, that he leaves his race car in mid-competition one afternoon to sit down at a stadium eatery and enjoy a chicken sandwich. This gives Ricky Bobby the opportunity to realize his longtime dream. He takes to the wheel, stuns everyone present with his performance, and goes from nobody to bigheaded buffoon faster than a Ferrari does zero to 60.
Few actors do bigheaded buffoons as well as Ferrell, of course. And Ferrell does few things as well as he does this type of character. His Ricky Bobby is a comically preposterous monster of self-indulgence and delusion. He marries the first bimbo who flashes him once he becomes a winner. They build a mansion designed to dwarf the other homes in their neighborhood, and raise their two demon spawn ("Walker" and "Texas Ranger") to be the rudest kids on the block. Dinnertime at the Bobby home, for example, is divided between Dad saying a hysterically meandering grace to the baby Jesus and the kids hurling insults at their feeble grandfather.
McKay reveals a genius for the delicate art of devising gags that succeed in having fun at the expense of NASCAR culture without alienating it. The movie has the potential to appeal equally to those without the slightest affinity for the sport and those for whom a human being strapped into a souped-up automobile and driving in circles for hours represents the apotheosis of athletic achievement. A prime target, naturally, is the tradition of covering every inch of a racecar with sponsor logos. Bobby is such a kid-in-a-candy-store rube that he sells the space on his windshield to the makers of Fig Newtons. Who's not going to laugh at that?
As Bobby's best friend and fellow racer, Cal Naughton Jr., John C. Reilly reveals a flair for fast-and-loose improvisation likely to astound even his biggest fans. It's clear that much of the movie consists of comic bits stitched together from separate loosely scripted sessions, and that in real life Reilly has no trouble keeping up with the picture's star. On screen, it's a different story, however. Ricky Bobby has such a sense of celebrity entitlement that he refuses to allow his buddy to win one himself every once in a while, and is too blind to notice the resentment building up in him, one slight at a time.
This blindness -- combined with an irrational fear of catching on fire -- proves Bobby's downfall when a traumatic accident on the track sidelines him and calls his future behind the wheel into question. This is the development that occasions the much-clipped scene in which Ferrell bolts from his totaled car wearing only his helmet and white BVDs, believing that he's engulfed in flame and screaming, "Help me, Jesus, help me, Jewish God -- help me, Tom Cruise!" You know something's funny when you can see it as many times as you've already seen this on TV and still laugh when you see it on the big screen.
Will Ricky Bobby ever race again? Will he recover from watching his wife leave him and marry his best friend now that he's number one? Will McKay come up with an excuse to get Ferrell to run around in his underwear some more? Thankfully, the answer to each of these questions is yes, because deep down Ricky Bobby is a decent, if dimwitted, country boy. It's not Naughton's fault that he's dumb enough to fall for the same gold digger his buddy fell for, and Lord knows, these are troubled times. If the questionable spectacle of Will Ferrell flailing down the road like a nutjob in his Jockeys somehow makes them the slightest bit more bearable, I say, long may he run.