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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy Print E-mail
Friday, 09 July 2004
ImageThe time, we’re told, is the 1970s, “a time before cable, when the local anchorman reigned supreme.” The place is San Diego, and the anchorman reigning supreme is Channel 4’s Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell). He’s a nice enough guy if a little dense—he’ll read whatever is on the teleprompter without thinking about it—and he’s a supreme egotist and womanizer. He also smokes like a chimney and downs tumblers of Scotch, sometimes just before he goes on the air.

His on-the-street reporter is Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), a Burgundy-in-waiting. The sports reporter is crude, cheerful jock Champ Kind (David Koechner); the weatherman is agreeable dimwit Brick Tamland (Steven Carrell). Together they make a formidable team, the cornerstone of Channel 4’s prize-winning, timeslot-dominating 6:00 news. They’re riding high, living large, partying hearty and swimming in the vast pools of their own egos.

But such a setup is made for a fall-down, which comes in the person of eager, gorgeous Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Burgundy meets her at a party—“by the beard of Zeus!” he exclaims. But she isn’t impressed when he tells her he’s a big deal in San Diego, and his sure-fire pickup line, “I want to be on you,” gets a frosty, ironic brush-off. But the worst is yet to come: She’s been hired by news team boss Ed Harken (Fred Willard); he’s bucking a tradition as old as TV news itself: a woman on the air, doing the news. More than that, she wants to be an anchor.

Ron and his team bristle and bitch, but there’s no getting around it: Veronica is now an on-the-air reporter. Of course, Ed tends to assign her to woman-friendly stories like cat fashion shows (the cats look very annoyed) and other soft stories. She wants to do the hard stuff. Meanwhile, she and Ron are doing the friendly stuff. She’s not amused when he announces on the air that the two of them are lovers. Soon a battleground is formed. This is all pretty funny stuff, and “Anchorman” is reasonably funny all the way through, mostly thanks to Ferrell’s go-for-broke style. He’s willing to do just about anything to get a laugh, but to his great credit, everything he does is very consistently in Ron’s dim but earnest character. Ron is a classic male chauvinist pig, and, classically, is utterly unaware of this. He’s done pretty much what he wanted to and things have turned out okay. So far. But Veronica’s will is greater than his, and she’s certainly smarter.

The script is by Ferrell and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer Adam McKay, here making his directorial debut. The press notes claim that this movie grew out of a serious documentary about the advent of women in TV newsrooms of the 1970s, but I think it’s also safe to assume that a lot of this came from watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” because Ron Burgundy is something of a reincarnation of Ted Knight’s sublime Ted Baxter. This is as much as admitted in the movie: Ron’s beloved dog is named Baxter. But that’s okay—there’s room for more than one dunderhead of an anchorman.

The weakness of “Anchorman” is that once the elements are all in place, that’s all there is to the script. The storyline is flimsy and erratic; it feels like a bunch of “Saturday Night Live” sketches sewn together. It’s not as good as Ferrell’s first starring movie, “Elf,” and some elements seem forced. But even the forced elements are pretty damned funny. Every now and then, Ron and his news team encounter a rival news team headed by Wes Mantooth (an uncredited Vince Vaughn). Finally there’s a rumble between these two and two other news teams, one led by a pipe-smoking Tim Robbins, the other, from a Spanish-language station, headed by a feisty Ben Stiller (who looks good in his Latino makeup and hair). These clashes are brief and cartoony—Luke Wilson is merely annoyed when his right arm is torn off. (Jack Black also has a funny uncredited cameo ending in Baxter being thrown off that tall bridge in San Diego. But the movie’s tone is light enough we know Baxter will be back.) Some gags, such as Ron’s florid exclamations, don’t work—but he’s very funny in an over-the-top scene of grief in a phone booth.

Oddly, though Ferrell does a lot of funny stuff, the screenplay misses other ideas that would seem obvious, but perhaps that would have shoved Ron a little too much in a Ted Baxter direction. The movie has only two real problems: will Ron hold onto his job? And will he and Veronica end up happily ever after? The movie could have used some more complications; there are too many periods when nothing very much is going on.

But McKay and Ferrell have surrounded Ron with a lot of funny characters. This doesn’t really include Paul Rudd’s Brian Fantana, who’s just a bit too much like Ron Burgundy, only not quite as blithely egotistical (and stupid). David Koechner is very good as Champ, rarely seen without a cowboy hat; he worships Ron—perhaps a leetle too much—and is always Ron’s staunchest supporter. Steve Carell is wonderfully stupid as Brick the weatherman; he never quite knows what’s going on, but is always pleased to be included. The end credits feature a lot of outtakes, showing that much of the funny stuff was improvised, including by the very inventive Carell.

For once, Fred Willard doesn’t play the same guy he always plays in Christopher Guest movies (and everywhere else); he’s an amiable, easy-going guy (who, judging from phone calls, has an awesomely dysfunctional family) who likes Ron and the others because they get ratings and don’t make very big waves. But he’s also smart enough to see that Veronica does qualify for a more prestigious position.

Christina Applegate, from “Married With Children,” holds her own reasonably well, but doesn’t progress very far from that. She plays the role maybe a little too straight; at times she doesn’t seem to fit into the rest of the “Anchorman” universe, which includes mock-gang fights and talking dogs.

This is McKay’s first movie as a director, and he does a good job. There was a lot of improvisation on the set, which means the movie was hard to edit, but apart from its sketch-like structure, the film flows smoothly enough and at just over 90 minutes, certainly does not overstay its welcome. It doesn’t rely on gross-out jokes—nobody farts—even if we get a somewhat better look at Ron’s erection than entirely necessary. The movie rarely stoops for laughs, and exhibits a lot of affection for all its dingbat characters. This alone puts it in a class beyond most comedies today. You stay classy, Anchorman.

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