A big man in a mid-market town, Will Ferrell’s character in Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy is a local newscaster made giddy by the rarefied air of semi-stardom. The face of San Diego TV news in the pre-cable 1970s, he’s long since settled into a comfortable routine of scotch, the manly companionship of his coworkers, and the romantic attentions of each year’s crop of young women who have watched him since they were in diapers.
Less a journalist than what the British more aptly call a newsreader, Ferrell abounds with unchecked, but essentially benevolent, pomposity. He has both feet stuck in an era that’s slipping away, but he’s heading for a fall when he becomes smitten with (and confused by) Christina Applegate, a hyper-competent, liberated reporter hired by boss Fred Willard for the sake of “diversity”—a word Ferrell for some reason believes refers to a wooden Civil War ship.
Ferrell, as usual, commits to his part with almost Method abandon. He co-wrote Anchorman with director Adam McKay, so it’s probably no coincidence that his Ron Burgundy conducts himself with the same level of commitment, speaking in soothing, authoritative tones whether recapping the day’s headlines, ordering “three fingers of Glenlivet,” or talking to his dog. The character is funny, but Ferrell’s cheerful obliviousness also allows him to play straight man, both to the film’s lunatic tone and to his sidekicks: David Koechner (as a cowboy-hat-sporting sports reporter), Paul Rudd (as a none-too-investigative investigative journalist), and Steve Carell (particularly funny as a weatherman whose IQ barely qualifies him to feed himself).
McKay is a veteran of Saturday Night Live short films, and for his feature debut, he throws in an homage or two to Boogie Nights and other visions of the high ’70s. But mostly, he takes a straight-faced approach and lets situations play out to their absurd extreme, treating the business of local news as though he were part of a Masonic secret order. When he and his coworkers need to cheer themselves up, for example, they hit the streets to look for new suits, and wind up confronting the competition in a throwdown straight out of an S.E. Hinton novel.
In some respects, there’s nothing new in Anchorman. Local TV anchors have been fair game at least since Ted Knight’s turn as Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (In fact, it’s probably no coincidence that Ron Burgundy owns a dog named “Baxter.”) The feminist message remains pretty soft and the plot is sketch-comedy thin, and while Ferrell and Applegate—who’s looking more and more like an underrated talent—make it easy to care for their characters, the film’s not really about caring for their characters. What it is about is plentiful laughs, and while some of them are stupid, none are cheap. Committed to its own weird world, Anchorman never winks at its audience: It moves with Simpsons-like swiftness, doling out gag after gag, at least a few of which involve jazz flute and the hibernation habits of bears. In McKay, Ferrell has found an unusually simpatico collaborator for the type of humor that’s made him a comedy force: outsized, unexpectedly sweet, and unrelenting.
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