Editing and improvisation keep "Talladega Nights" on track

by Eric Melin on August 4, 2006

in Print Reviews

Three cheers for the most unsung hero in comedy—the film editor!

In the case of the newest improv-heavy Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” the MVP of the movie is most definitely editor Brent White. Just as he did with 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy,” White had to choose the best scenes from hours and hours of wildly different takes to fashion together something with a narrative arc that resembles a movie. It can’t be easy work, but he had a little more story to work with than he did in the uneven “Anchorman.” Minor continuity errors be damned, “Talladega Nights” is one funny film.

Built-in product placement- brilliant!

Quickly understood by audiences, and often easily described in a sentence, the “high concept” movie rules in the summertime. No non-sequel this summer comes close to this one for easy recognition and built-in money-making potential, not to mention an unlimited amount of product placement that has to be there. During its production, the working title was simply “Untitled Will Ferrell NASCAR Comedy,” and that about sums it up.

Ricky Bobby, who shares more than just initials with Ron Burgandy, is another sweetly dumb concoction form Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay. Taking his life’s inspiration from something his deadbeat Dad said to him when he was drunk (“If you ain’t first, you’re last!”), Ricky grows up to be a champion race car driver with all the wrong priorities. When a car wreck on the racetrack puts Ricky in the hospital, he must re-discover his passion for the sport and re-assess what is important to him.

If you are thinking that this plot sounds a little serious for such a broad comedy, worry not. “Talladega Nights” is a series of mainly improvised sketches based around the basic outline above. In the press notes, Farrell explains that there was typically one take filmed as written, and the cast would then improvise from there. Casting is key, with veteran improv actors like Sacha Baron Cohen (“Da Ali G Show,” “Borat”), Gary Cole (“Office Space,” “Dodgeball”), and Jane Lynch (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) riffing right alongside Oscar nominees like John C. Reilly (“Chicago”) and Amy Adams (“Junebug”).

While I may be singling out Mr. White for some recognition—partly because nobody else will—“Talladega Nights” would be nothing without the fearlessness of the actors. This is a movie that will do anything for a laugh, but rarely feels desperate for it. Ferrell falls back on some of his old reliable laugh-getters (like running around almost completely naked, a la “Old School”), but his timing has never been better, and he is not afraid to let his talented supporting cast steal as many scenes as they like.

Not if you was the last immigrant grocer on Earth…honey!

What keeps the movie speeding along at a brisk comic pace is that the sentimental moments are nothing more than pit stops along the way to another absurdist joke. There’s no “real” racing in the movie, as drivers whip around competitors at will, as determined by the scene, and seem to crash as much as possible. Ferrell and crew also mercilessly poke fun at every redneck stereotype. Making the villain (a very funny Cohen) a married, homosexual and French NASCAR driver truly is a stroke of brilliance. Since Ricky is so good-naturedly naïve though, it takes the sting out of some of the harsher jabs, and lets Ferrell & company off the hook when it comes to offending their target audience.

That said, there are surprisingly subversive elements and unexpected laughs throughout “Talladega Nights,” like when Ricky’s son offers inappropriately incisive psychoanalysis of his alcoholic grandpa—“Somebody didn’t love you enough when you were little.” While the story hinges on a fairly typical set-up, any cheesy stab at sentimentality is hilariously undermined at the last minute.

While “Talladega Nights” cannot quite hang with the inspired lunacy of a meticulously-planned Zucker brothers gag film like “Airplane!” or “The Naked Gun,” it remains consistently funny. Sure, characters do complete 360 degree turnarounds in one montage sequence. Whole scenes even seem to be missing involving characters that probably had more screen time in the original script. But the editor is just barely able to make sense out of the whole affair. Thanks to a natural, amiable attitude and consistent amount of funny, “Talladega Nights” should appeal to fans of the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” and “The Daily Show” alike.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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