TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY directed by Adam McKay, written by Will Ferrell and McKay, with Ferrell and John C. Reilly. 110 minutes. A Sony Pictures release. Opens August 4.
Chicago -- Will Ferrell is so deluded . In fact, that's one of the secrets of his comic genius.
"I love characters who have unearned confidence," he says. "That's just a really funny thing to me. I love meeting people who think they're incredibly important. And they're everywhere not just in L.A."
His latest creation, Talladega Nights' NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, fits right into his pantheon of comic egotists, like Craig the Cheerleader, anchorman Ron Burgundy and the cockiest sonofabitch of them all, George W. Bush.
Strange, then, for a man who likes the onscreen oversell to undersell himself in person. But Ferrell tall, non-threatening and approachable is pretty low-key. In his blue-and-white Swiss track suit top, he looks as if he just got back from a milk run.
He prefers the dry, deadpan joke to the big physical routine. For instance:
"Do you want to hear the saddest story about me and speed? I drive a Toyota Prius, and I'd never gotten a speeding ticket in my life until I got it. Going 50 in a 35. That's how I like to live it. On the edge."
Talladega Nights reunites him with director Adam McKay, who helmed Anchorman and was a head writer during Ferrell's years at Saturday Night Live.
"Everyone on SNL knew very quickly that Will was the guy," says McKay. "So it was weird when we came out to Hollywood and started trying to sell scripts with him."
Studio executives weren't biting. They were offering Ferrell roles as the fourth comedic lead.
"I remember Judd Apatow [The 40-Year-Old Virgin and a producer on Talladega] saying, "Are these guys idiots?' But the same thing happened to Jim Carrey and Jack Black. You've got to have a big hit. "
Farrell's breakout hit was Old School, followed quickly by Elf and Anchorman. Each drew on his grown-up-kid-in-a-man's-body, and his willingness to appear stupid or silly for a laugh, and then another one.
Talladega Nights features lots of over-the-top yuks, including an extended white-trash "saying grace" scene and a hospital rehabilitation bit that sends up every earnest sports comeback movie ever made.
Farrell and McKay came up with the premise pretty quickly.
"Anchorman took three years to make it was a tough sell because it was considered obscure to make a comedy about newscasters," says Farrell. "So we thought we should pick something that everyone knows, that's in the zeitgeist. And no one had made a movie about race car driving."
Last year was a transition period for Ferrell. Besides the formulaic Kicking & Screaming, he starred in a tiny indie drama called Winter Passing, about a reclusive J. D. Salingeresque writer. He also channelled Woody Allen pretty successfully in Allen's Melinda And Melinda.
"I think Winter Passing only played in L.A. and New York, and only for a short time," he says. "I knew going in that it was going to be small. Roger Ebert saw me at the Oscars and said it would serve me well. To get a compliment like that made it worth it.
"As for Melinda, I don't know if I've ever worked on another movie where I felt nervous every day. I couldn't get it out of my head that that guy over there was Woody Allen. It was fun to watch him work with such confidence. He knew exactly what he wanted."
Ferrell's next project returns him to familiar goofball territory. In Blades Of Glory, he and Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder star as competing figure skaters.
"We get kicked out of the sport for having a fight on the gold medal stand," he says.
"And later we decide to return to the sport through a loophole that lets us back but only if we become a pair. Yes, we're the first men's pair figure skaters." He pauses a second. "No gay subtext whatsoever."