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Will Ferrell's Anchorman is dumb, and funny, as hell

Wednesday, Jul 7 2004
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Anchorman, co-written by its star, Will Ferrell, plays like a series of outtakes strung together more or less in random sequence. There's a vague plot, about the fall and rise of a San Diego newsman whose polyester suits are brighter than he is, but this doesn't propel the movie forward so much as keep it from spilling off the edges of the screen and soaking the audience. (A jellyfish is more cohesive than Anchorman.) It begins and ends with clips of Ferrell in coiffed wig and Burt Reynolds caterpillar mustache delivering kinda-sorta-funny lines in a voice as deep and plush as the shag carpet of the 1970s, the era in which the film is set; Ferrell's never met a sentence he didn't think could get a laugh, and he'll spend any amount of celluloid to make his point.

What you see at the movie's beginning and end might as well be a highlight reel of Ferrell's previous appearances as anchorman Ron Burgundy on Saturday Night Live: Burgundy drinking scotch at his desk before he goes live ("Scotch, scotch, scotch, down to my belly"), lambasting an off-screen makeup artist for her bush-league work, complimenting another on her body. But Anchorman didn't spring from SNL -- it only feels that way, given director and co-writer Adam McKay's stint as a writer for the show, plus appearances from current cast members Chris Parnell as a station exec, Fred Armisen as a Latin jazz club owner, and former SNL-er David Koechner as the sports anchor. Stocked with more famous-face cameos than a Friars Club roast, Anchorman also features former cast members of The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show With Bob and David, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Freaks and Geeks. Can you swear this movie hasn't been on television already?

One must, if nothing else, appreciate the dedication the filmmakers put into finding the funny; the gag reel accompanying the final credits feels nearly as long as the movie itself, suggesting a willingness to let the camera go till a punch line stuck to the film. Most of the scenes appearing in the Anchorman trailer didn't even make the final cut, including one in which Burgundy takes a bullet for rival co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, possessing, as she explains, "exquisite breasts"), which would have been a major plot point in any other movie but was expendable in this case. And the biggest laughs come from the most nonsensical, insane moments, including an incredibly violent rumble between Burgundy's Channel 4 news team (Koechner, The Daily Show's Steve Carell, and Paul Rudd) and the other stations' reporters, played by Vince Vaughn (as Wes Mantooth) and just about everyone else with whom Ferrell has ever worked.

Anchorman is set during "the time before cable," says an off-screen narrator, "when the local anchor reigned supreme and only men were allowed to read the news." Reading the news, however, is Ron Burgundy's sole talent, and even that is suspect; he's so dim he'll read anything on the TelePrompTer, even a question mark placed after his name during his tepid sign-off ("I'm Ron Burgundy -- you stay classy, San Diego"), and he believes San Diego is German for "a whale's vagina." But, by far, he's the smartest of the news-dispensing quartet: Rudd's correspondent Brian Fantana is the self-proclaimed "stylish one" who has a nickname not only for his penis, but also for each testicle; Koechner's urban cowboy Champ Kind is "all about having fun" and starting the occasional fire; and Carell's weatherman Brick Tamland possesses an IQ of 48, though he will eventually prove handy with a trident. (Carell provides the movie's best moments; he's nuts enough to render Ferrell the straight man.)

They're useless without each other and ... OK, useless with each other, too. All share a disdain for the idea of women in the newsroom, save, perhaps, Brick; he'll believe and behave as the others tell him, especially when Veronica's assigned to the team. To Ron, diversity is "an old wooden ship used during the Civil War"; it is not sharing his desk with a woman who spends her spare time practicing her non-regional dialect and whose goal is anchoring a network newscast. Their relationship begins as a rivalry, evolves into a romance (she's particularly impressed with Ron's ability to play jazz flute), and collapses into their trading hysterically rude insults beneath the newscast's credits. She will ultimately be the cause of his undoing, which involves his growing a beard and drinking milk from the carton on a hot day, and his redemption, if such a thing is possible for a man who believes he's actually having conversations with his dog.

One is willing to forgive Anchorman its idiocy because of its lunacy. At its best it plays like modern-day Marx Brothers, in which every single thing that happens makes no sense and serves no purpose and nothing happens for any reason at all. It exists solely to get a laugh, not to make a point, and it gets extra points for managing to carry on an erection joke for so long that it stops being funny and starts being funny all over again in the same scene. Even more impressive, a movie set in the '70s still gets in a jab at George W. Bush. Anchorman is stupid, sure, but never dumb, which is news indeed at a time when people think the rancid White Chicks is funny.

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Robert Wilonsky

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