The fast and the humorous

Will Ferrell manages to keep 'Ricky Bobby' from crashing.'Talladega nights' nearly crashes and burns.

It's a good thing I like Will Ferrell so much, because he's often the only reason to see one of his movies. His new one, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," is among the weirder entries in the Ferrell canon. The tag-line calls it the "story of a dreamer who can only count to #1," which makes it sound like a comedy. And it is – except it also tries to be something of a NASCAR docudrama on the sly. Some of those car crashes aren't exactly laff riots.

Ricky is first presented to us as a wimpy kid whose sole dream in life is to go fast. His crumbum father (Gary Cole) tells him, "If you ain't first, you're last," and Ricky takes this advice all too strenuously to heart.

When he finally gets his big break, he proves unstoppable on the track. (His chief sponsor, in a movie rife with product tie-ins, is Wonder Bread.) He acquires a blonde hottie of a wife (Leslie Bibb) and names his two sons Walker and Texas Ranger. His idea of parenting them is to let them run wild and insult everybody – that's how you build winners, right?

Nobody can play fatuous fat heads better than Ferrell, and nobody can be crazier and seem straighter. As Ricky, Ferrell isn't entirely in his best element, since for most of the movie he's a champion. We wait for the boom to drop, and when a crash causes Ricky to lose his nerve, along with his wife to his best friend Cal (John C. Reilly), his comic instincts kick in. Everything in Ricky's life goes so baroquely wrong that for a while the movie seems like a case of cruel and unusual punishment. Except that – did I forget to mention it? – nobody can play the comic martyr better than Ferrell.

He co-wrote the film with director Adam McKay, an old "Saturday Light Live" chum with whom he also collaborated on "Anchorman," probably Ferrell's funniest comedy. That film had an inspired cast that included Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Luke Wilson, and Tim Robbins.

"Talladega Nights" has to make do with Reilly, who has a deadpan grace, and Sasha Baron Cohen – otherwise known as Ali G. – who plays a gay French racing champ who reads Camus's "L'Étranger" behind the wheel of his speedster and pronounces Bobby's name "Bubby." When Cohen and Ferrell are eyeing each other, you never saw a loopier pair. They compensate for the film's hit-and-miss shenanigans, which more often miss than hit. Grade: B–

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, drug references, and brief comic violence.

Sex/Nudity: 15 instances of innuendo, 1 scene of implied sex. Violence: 12 mostly comic scenes. Profanity: 57 expressions, some strong. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 18 scenes with drinking, 5 with smoking, 7 references to marijuana.

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