Although I try not to play up the Two Cultures meme too much, this movie may genuinely be a lot funnier to people that aren't from a Red State. If, like many Blue Staters, you find NASCAR and its adherents inherently bemusing, you will find much to laugh at. The film goes out of its way to point out the ramshackle way in which Christ, cars, consumerism and crudity combine to form some hideous gorgon of a culture, an attempt which occasionally hits the mark but most of the time seems like The Village Voice channelling Larry the Cable Guy. The movie is also very intent on inserting a latent homoeroticism into this culture, an effort which is, to be perfectly honest, silly and inaccurate. NASCAR is many things, most of them dumb, but it's not all that gay. Sorry.
I'm not by any means defending NASCAR culture. I'm just stuck between wishing Ferrell and Co. had done their homework and actually given us a full-blooded satire, and wishing instead that the filmmaking team had been more imaginative and created an entirely self-sufficient world independent of social commentary or reality, as they did with Anchorman. None of Anchorman's appeal or humor comes from the success of its representation of the 70s or newscasting, but Talladega Nights really uses the pseudo-reality of Red State America as a crutch for cheap laughs and meatless characterizations. This half-way point between parody and fabrication, between commentary and originality, is a perfect recipe for a half-assed, awkward film. If you don't believe me, watch American Dreamz, which is unsuccessful in exactly the same way.
Additionally, the movie looks and sounds as if it were almost entirely improvised. There are scores of lines, even complete gags, that are positively stillborn and that are inexplicably left in the cut. This is the MADTv version of a Will Ferrell film. The editing is similarly amateur and sloppy and the directing haphazard, with numerous shots that simply do nothing.
The moments of greatest comedic value are clearly the ones that are scripted and planned. If you see this movie, watch for the moments when a prop is used. That is when something was planned, and it will be funny. Any time you see two people merely speaking, the humor will have evaporated and you may safely let your attention drift.
Having said all of that, this summer's crop of films blows, and there are enough laughs in Talladega Nights to justify spending $8 or $10 when the competition is this bad. I laughed often, but not really all that hard, and neither did the audience. Of course, I was watching in a Red State.
Finally, a request to studio heads and casting directors everywhere: Please put Amy Adams in many more films.