What makes Will Ferrell funny? It’s a question that the man himself seemed to be asking sometime around 2005, when the heights of success gave way to career-dipping vertigo. For those who’d fêted the Saturday Night Live alumni since his days wearing the fez as Mustafa, the unstoppable henchman in Austin Powers, through Frank the Tank in Old School to Chaz in Wedding Crashers, it was a dark moment, a wobble that almost toppled the big lug from his comedy pedestal.
Three outings made Ferrell fans not laugh, but weep: a range-stretchy role in Woody Allen’s Melinda & Melinda impressed, but playing the over-caffeinated soccer coach in Kicking & Screaming and Nicole Kidman’s bitch in Bewitched were grave errors. The last hurt the most. Every time Nicole wrinkled her pert nose, Ferrell seemed to lose a little bit more of his comedy mojo.
Strait-jacketed into a studio flick that couldn’t cope with his anarchic humour, Ferrell looked like a wild man tamed. For the first time, the joke was on him: while Bewitched’s postmodern (but shit-in-the-mouth unfunny) script made his character into a washed-up Hollywood has-been (“Make me 200 cappuccinos and bring me the best one!”), the finished bomb of a movie was bad enough to turn him into one.
There are certain things in life – like stroking a burning dog – that conventional wisdom warns you shouldn’t do. Comedians interrogating the Gods of Comedy about what’s funny and what’s not is one of those all-time no-nos. It’s an express route to alcoholism, failed marriages and suicide (just ask Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers). Ferrell’s surreal slapstick is probably impervious to such crying on the inside analysis, but in the fall-out from Bewitched he must’ve been tempted to start unpicking his talent.
Instead, though, he made Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby. It’s a tyre-screeching return to form that puts Ferrell behind the wheel and back on track. It’s exuberant genius, pulsing with all the joy of a condemned man who’s been set free. It’s Ferrell being Ferrell. Industry rumour says Big Will pitched Talladega to suits at Sony without a script or even a treatment. He was so fired up they said, “Yes please,” signed a cheque for 20 million big ones and left him to do his own thing. He didn’t even call in his Frat Pack brothers, just mined the untapped improv talent of John C Reilly as Ricky’s “shake’n’bake” wingman Cal.
Talladega plays like a sister (or perhaps a brother) piece to Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. Like that ’70s piss-take, it’s co-written and directed by Adam McKay, who knows how to bring the best out of his leading man by building an entire movie around him. He’s sussed that Ferrell’s genius lies in his testosterone-fuelled, man-child incongruity; he’s a nine-year-old trapped in a big bloke’s body (think Big, only more awkward and with more hair). Add to that his talent for surreal improv and mind-bending non-sequiturs (“El Diablo, it’s like Spanish for fighting chicken”), stick him in a NASCAR spoof and you’ve got Ferrell on four wheels in the fast lane.
The star is an expert at creating and playing pompous, stupid jackasses who don’t realise just how ridiculous they are, but Ricky Bobby’s the greatest character he’s spawned so far – “a big, crazy, hairy American winning machine” who knows nothing but pole position until he’s lapped off the track. His career falters, his wife leaves him and Camus-reading, espresso-sipping Frenchman Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) storms the winner’s podium. So like Ferrell a few months back, Bobby’s a man with nothing left to lose, but everything to reclaim.
Being shoehorned into studio fodder has made Ferrell’s thirst for improv sharper. Take one of Talladega’s many hilariously surreal skits, the dinner table grace where Bobby and co debate the merits of praying to tiny baby Jesus, teenage Jesus, bearded Jesus or Ninja Jesus fighting evil samurai warriors... Take the scene where Bobby discovers the missus has gone off with his best mate... Take the garden scene with Mos Def and Elvis Costello... No wonder the disc’s extras are dominated by what didn’t make it into the movie, the end credits blooper reel being backed up by deleted scenes and outtakes. Ferrell’s comedy is so rapid fire the only way to catch its highlights is to simply keep the camera rolling.
As Talladega cruises on, Ricky questions his motto of “If you ain’t first, you’re last” and slowly starts to claw his way back to the top of the NASCAR circuit. He’s a changed man... and so is Ferrell. Having wrestled the Hollywood beast and lost, Will’s learnt that the only way to win is by staying true to yourself. It sounds like a corny third act revelation straight out of Scriptwriting For Dummies, but chances are it’s just the start of Ferrell’s comeback. High above him, the Gods of Comedy are smiling. Scratch that: they’re beaming.