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''Talledega Nights'' is a return to the top for Will Ferrell -- After four box office flops, the actor is back at No. 1

Unlike the slow-witted speed demon he plays in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell can certainly count past No. 1. It's just that after his NASCAR comedy's opening, he may not have to. Talladega zoomed to the top last weekend, grossing a high-octane $47 million and rolling in behind Bruce Almighty as the second-biggest nonsequel comedy opening of all time. Directed by Ferrell's writing partner Adam McKay, the film marks the SNL vet's strongest bow yet. And, more importantly, it signals that he's regained his status as one of Hollywood's premier comedians.

Which must be a relief, bec ause f or a while there, it looked like Ferrell might morph into another post-SNL cautionary tale. After 2003's Elf took in $173 million and 2004's Anchorman grabbed $84 million, the actor was offered just about every comedy script in town and his asking price leaped to a reported $20 million. (Contrary to popular legend, however, Talladega wasn't greenlit just on the words ''Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.'') But then, one after another, his movies tanked: Kicking & Screaming ($53 million), Bewitched ($63 million), The Producers ($20 million), and Curious George ($58 million). And the industry folks who had courted him started wondering if he was that bankable after all. ''He made miscalculations,'' notes one Hollywood agent. ''But oddly enough, no one blames him. The studio and directors take the hit. [Audiences] still really like the guy.''

For his part, McKay thinks veering from the ''hardcore absurdity'' of Anchorman toward projects that were ''a little too cute'' was a mistake. ''You lose your comedy cred when you do family-friendly,'' he says. But the real lesson here might be that Ferrell, like Adam Sandler, is at his loony-creative best when working with his own team. His next two movies — Marc Forster's twisty dramedy Stranger Than Fiction and the Olympic spoof Blades of Glory — aren't Ferrell-McKay flicks, but the recently announced Step Brothers, with Talladega costar John C. Reilly, is. Either way, says McKay, Ferrell isn't fretting. ''Will's so laid-back, I don't know if there's pressure. It's really: Get funny people and have a good time. And if it bombs,'' he laughs, ''then oh well.''

Originally posted Aug 11, 2006 Published in issue #891-892 Aug 18, 2006 Order article reprints