Watching Will Ferrell in the title role of the mock auto-racing biopic Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, I was reminded of film critic Manny Farber’s assertion that perhaps the finest moment in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep came in the split second when Humphrey Bogart cocked his head to look up at a sign while walking across a street. I know what you’re thinking: Who doesn’t think of Bogart when watching a Will Ferrell movie?

Well, my point is that there are probably a dozen such moments in Talladega Nights, wherein Ferrell — who’s rivaled only by Jack Black as the reigning crown prince of movie clowndom — fills you with giddy pleasure by doing some beautifully played, seemingly incidental bit of business. I don’t mean the movie’s big comic set pieces — though the one where Ferrell goes mano a mano with an extremely unfriendly cougar is a beaut. Rather, I mean things as simple as the way Ferrell, well, crosses a street. In knee socks. Wearing too-tight denim shorts. Riding a child’s bicycle.

That particular scene comes at rock bottom for Ricky Bobby, former stock-car champion laid low by a nasty crash and the resulting post-traumatic stress. His wife has left him for his former best friend and teammate (John C. Reilly). His onetime rival, flaming French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), has displaced Bobby in the NASCAR pantheon. Even his children have turned against him, subscribing to Bobby’s sage advice that “if you’re not first, you’re last.” And so, with a little help from his own deadbeat dad (an excellent Gary Cole), Bobby sets about reclaiming his need for speed. Scripted by Ferrell and his longtime writing partner Adam McKay (who also directed), Talladega Nights goes on to chart Bobby’s inevitable phoenixlike rebirth; but as in Ferrell and McKay’s previous collaboration, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the joy of the movie lies in its randomness, its willingness to indulge the private and obscure.

There’s lots of broadly played slapstick in Talladega Nights, but if I focus on Ferrell and McKay’s penchant for esoterica, it’s because that’s what gives the movie its funky vibe and what makes it not just the funniest but the smartest comedy around by a mile. Anchorman was a hit, and so Ferrell and McKay have been given a bigger budget — the racing scenes are as slick as anything in Days of Thunder — and allowed to do shit that no studio executive in his right mind is supposed to let the makers of a Will Ferrell comedy do, whether it’s the scene where Bobby stabs his own leg to cure a bout of psychosomatic paralysis, or the impish insertion of an Applebee’s commercial into the middle of the slow-motion climax, or the quoting of Camus and Eleanor Roosevelt. Talladega Nights goes for broke, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. But at its best, it scales the heights of cinematic Dadaism and affirms that Ferrell and McKay are among the few (along with Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and The 40 Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow, who has producer credit here) trying to breathe new life into the atrophied American screen comedy.

Oh, and by the way: For the disquisition on Faulkner and the end of the American South, you’ll need to stay all the way through the end credits.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY | Directed by ADAM McKAY | Written by WILL FERRELL and McKAY | Produced by JIMMY MILLER and JUDD APATOW | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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