Thursday, July 15, 2004

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2004 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Let's get something straight right at the start: Nothing in Anchorman arises organically from anything else. This is a movie that wears its complete artificiality on its sleeve, all about this joke right now. When you take that tack, every joke had better be funny, because any space between them is absolutely dead. Anchorman hits the mark about 75% of the time, which is a pretty decent success rate.

Anchorman falls squarely into the genre of "idiot movie"; one or more (generally male) morons feel like they've got the world on a string until an actual competent person (who is usually female) starts horning in on their turf. By the time the dumb men and smart girl have put aside their differences, there's been plenty of time to laugh at the men getting in trouble for basically being idiots, but also to find that they're decent-hearted and maybe not quite so stupid after all. In this case, the idiots are a local news team in 1978 San Diego, with the non-idiot being Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), the station's first woman reporter.

In a more sophisticated movie (and by "more sophisticated", I'm talking about an American Pie sequel or something by the Farrelly Brothers), the fact that Ron Burgandy (Will Ferrell) and his evening-news cohorts do not in fact seem to have good hearts (they never actually stop being sexist jerks), or that there's really no reason for Veronica to have any actual interest in him would be a bigger issue. The same for Ron's strangely fluctuating levels of common sense.

This movie, however, hides those issues behind quirkiness. You can make a character much more sympathetic by having him love his dog and treat said pooch like an equal. Similarly, the decision to eschew four-letter words works well in three ways: It makes the characters a little less coarse, it makes the use of the single f-bomb a PG-13 movie is allowed seem like an actual transgression, and it forces the writers (Ferrell and director Adam McKay) to fill the dialogue with peculiar turns of phrase that demand attention and earn chuckles out of just where they came up with that (the outtakes over the credits suggest many were likely improvised).

Talking about the characters as anything other than joke vectors is probably beside the point, but it's worth mentioning that the actors mostly manage to deliver those jokes very well. Ferrell gives himself many of the best lines, although the absolute cream go to Steven Carell as Brick, the weatherman whose name roughly describes his intellectual capacity. There's a real art to saying things that make almost no sense without simply confusing the audience. Another standout in limited time is Fred Willard as the station's news director; he somehow manages good-natured irritation.

Christina Applegate falls into the category of "does what she can"; between this, Starsky & Hutch and Dodgeball (and that's just for this year), it seems like writing genuinely funny female characters is something that the (mostly male) makers of this type of movie have a very difficult time with. Applegate fares better than Christine Taylor did in Dodgeball, but is basically reacting to people not treating her with respect. There's not much reason for Paul Rudd or David Koechner to be in this movie (they play the other members of the news team). There are several very funny cameos - in particular, the anchormen for the other local news teams are well-cast.

It's worth mentionig that a number of scenes from the preview simply do not appear in the movie; apparently enough bits and whole subplots were cut out to make a second movie (which will allegedly appear on the Anchorman DVD). Comedies must be edited in an almost ruthless manner, but it's kind of curious that jokes deemed funny enough to put in the trailer didn't make the cut for the final film.

Anchorman isn't quite as consistently funny as Dodgeball, but it does manage the guffaw quite a bit. And full-sized belly-laughs go a long way to making the movie's shortcomings forgivable.

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