Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy represents the purest effort of a New Wave in film comedy that lives to riff. It's a "Six Degrees of Ben Stiller" world of comedy right now, with chummy folk like the Wilsons (Owen and Luke), Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jack Black, supporting players like Hank Azaria and Stephen Root, and behind-the-camera talent like Judd Apatow professionally colliding like guests at an overcrowded party. Despite their talents, though, the fruits of their labors are hardly ever satisfying, so the deliriously funny Anchorman—written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and starring Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell—is cause for momentary celebration.
Anchorman works by attacking a specific target which feels pretty fresh, even though it isn't. Ferrell plays the decades-removed title character: a furry, chauvinistic, liquor-swilling, cigarette-smoking professional who is, inexplicably, good at what he does and beloved by the masses. In other words, he is Austin Powers, transplanted behind a 1970s news anchor's desk. The Mary Tyler Moore to Ferrell's Ted Baxter is Applegate's Veronica Corningstone, a new reporter immediately demeaned and harassed by her co-workers but determined, against their protestations, to be the first female anchor.
When events conspire to place Corningstone behind the desk, the smart and capable Corningstone rattles Burgundy's boy's club, including Rudd's man-on-the-street Brian Fantana, Koechner's sports reporter Champ Kind, and Fred Willard's news director Ed Harken. "This is definitely a man's world," she decides, as she practices her "non-regional diction" and, against her better judgment, falls head over heels for selfish boor Burgundy. Of course, Anchorman has nothing to teach us about the bad old days of blithely acceptable chauvinism, only a reminder of our progress in decades hence.
One of Stiller's primary comedic skills, exercised in ad-libbed flurries, is to mangle the English language with elaborate non sequiturs and grammatical malapropisms. Anchorman similarly runs on a random punchline generator. The opening moments feature Burgundy (and the film's velvety narrator) slinging oddball one-liners: "He had a voice that could make wolverines purr," "Hey, everyone! Come and see how good I look!", "How 'bout that? The squirrel can water-ski!", and Burgundy's signature sign-off "You stay classy, San Diego." I guess you have to be there, and depending on your point of view, it's all uphill or downhill from there.
Case-in-point: Carell's Brick Tamland, a weatherman with a 48 I.Q. Tamland is given to loud stammering or mindless mimicry of the rest of his beloved news team whenever he is confused. Carell steals the show by craftily walking a fine line and avoiding, barely, a mean-spirited tone for his dangerously unintelligent character. In Elf, Ferrell found for his mock-serious character comedy a sweet accessibility akin to Robin Williams, but here, vigorously working his face down to his double-chin, he finds a raunchier apotheosis. Whether breaking out his jazz flute or dissolving into a near-incoherent emotional outburst, Ferrell oddly anchors a movie which strains to drift: an outrageous Gangs of New York take-off is funny, for example, but not nearly as funny as its reflective aftermath, nailed by Carell and Ferrell.
As in Stiller's Zoolander (which co-starred Ferrell) and the more recent Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, stupid extremes, surprise cameos, and affectionate potshots at bygone fashions, music, and attitudes are the orders of the day. Like Zoolander, Anchorman at least comes close to achieving the mad abandon of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (Airplane, The Naked Gun) or Mel Brooks's keen instincts for parody and lovably stupid crassness. At this late date in screen comedy, we'll take it and we'll like it.