Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was reportedly shopped around to studios with a six-word pitch: "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver." That sums up the entire takeaway of the film. It's Will Ferrell being Will Ferrell. With fast cars.
Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) is a simple and self-glorifying NASCAR star who's always had a need for speed. With an inherited life motto from his dad of "If you ain't first, you're last," Ricky believes winning is everything. And winners, he reasons, can do whatever they want and have whatever they want. But soon, his reign as the hedonistic king of NASCAR is threatened by a new challenger—the homosexual French driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen).
So, the important question: Is it funny? Oh yes. While not as funny as Anchorman (also written by Ferrell and director Adam McKay), Ferrell's over-the-top, no-holds-barred wackiness carries the movie. He again falls back on his trademark Doofus Everyman role, the cartoonish and innocently aloof exaggeration of a real person set in a world of absurdity. The script has some clever moments, like lampooning sports films' knack for long, slow-motion action sequences and Karate Kid-like training sequences. But it's very likely that most of the film's biggest laughs weren't ever written in the script, but came out of on-camera improv between a cast that obviously had a blast filming.
However, the laughs don't add up to much. They don't stick with you, because there's no meaning behind them. Instead, the movie is just 105 minutes of bawdy absurdity for absurdity's sake. While Ferrell's Doofus Everyman bit is funny, it's a joke that gets old. As Anchorman's Ron Burgundy, Ferrell found ways to keep the character fresh. And perhaps part of the credit is owed to that film's effective use of great side characters to supplement Ferrell. But here, he pretty much solely carries all the humor. Most of the side characters' bits fall embarrassingly flat. Of the supporting cast, only Ricky's mom (Jane Lynch) and his two sons are memorable—and that's because they are the only characters with a linear, sensical plot. Everyone else is like a comedy prop: used for a certain joke and then moved out of the film. What a character will say or believe in one scene seems to have nothing to do with what the same character does or believes later on.
The underlying issue is that Talladega Nights has no real message, theme, or story. It is hard to tell exactly what the film is trying to say or project through its comedy and satire. It always seems like the movie is about to punch home a satirical point about NASCAR or clearly lampoon something, but then that theme fades away and another gag pops up. The story themes are hard to figure out as well. In the end, a character teaches Ricky a lesson about life and racing, but it comes out of nowhere and lasts little more than a few lines. It feels like the film is saying, "Okay, this is when we need to end this thing somehow." Then, we're assured that Ricky Bobby is changed and all is well. The only real satisfying story arc is that of Ricky's mom and her two grandsons. Never disciplined by their parents, the boys are evil, disrespectful little brats until Grandma enforces "Granny Law." With just a little force and discipline, Granny shows the boys that you can't just do or say whatever you feel like—you must exercise manners and responsibility.