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Crossing the line

Racy formula of sweetness and crudity sets up Talladega

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby employs a structure that lately seems to strike a winning balance for audiences. Screenwriters Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (who also directs) rely on an underlying sweetness and sincerity to mitigate the nearly unrelenting stream of bad taste, blasphemy, and crude humor the film depends on for its biggest laughs.

Some people honestly find Will Ferrell funny. Those who don't are confounded by that idea. Ferrell, who seems keenly aware of his strongest assets, is usually playing some variation of an overconfident oaf, and his NASCAR-racing, beer-loving Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights (PG-13) is not too far removed from his portrayal of President Bush on Saturday Night Live.

Ricky's fast-driving, fast-living father abandoned the family when he was just a kid, and Ricky grows up idolizing his absent father and the one piece of advice the man gave his son: "If you're not first, you're last." As a result, Ricky and his childhood best friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly) end up as drivers on the same NASCAR team. Superstar Ricky always wins; second fiddle Cal provides the assist.

A challenge from homosexual, French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) leads to a devastating crash and an emotional and mental breakdown for Ricky Bobby. The back-stabbing Cal takes Ricky's wife (Leslie Bibb) and top spot on the team, and Ricky is left living with his mother and delivering pizzas on a bike-until Ricky's long-absent father steps back into his life.

Talladega Nights simultaneously lampoons NASCAR and Southern redneck culture while appealing to that same audience. In a similar manner, like many recent comedies, it attempts to assuage the audience's conscience: Ricky's foul-mouthed, insolent kids (Walker and Texas Ranger) are ultimately brought into line by their church-going, tough-talking grandmother-which is supposed to make us feel OK about laughing at the horrible, unrepeatable dialogue given to the kids earlier in the movie.