White Chicks), lesser Stiller vehicles, and quickly-declining Sandler pictures. But that summer, two comedies came right out of left field--the low-budget indie oddity Napoleon Dynamite, and Anchorman, a period comedy from a first-time filmmaker that was basically a parody of, um, '70s newsmen. Not exactly a sure-fire recipe for either hilarity or big box-office, to be sure. But it was a surprise hit, with both critics and audiences; more importantly, from a standpoint of style and personnel on both sides of the camera, Anchorman pretty much set the comedic table for much of the rest of the decade.
Will Ferrell (who co-wrote, with director McKay) plays the title character, the kind of gloriously stupid yet supremely self-confident oaf that would become his stock-in-trade. He is San Diego's most trusted and beloved anchorman, enjoying the spoils of his local celebrity, drinking and partying with his buddies on the "Channel 4 news team": Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), the ladies' man features reporter; Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell), the astonishingly daft weatherman; and Champ Kind (Daivd Koechner), the hard-partying sports guy. At a party, Ron pursues--and is shot down by--the lovely Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate); he soon finds, to his shock, that she is the newest member of the news team. She braves the taunts and harassment of the news room, but can't resist Ron's charms. They begin a rocky (and short-lived) romance, and things get ugly when Ron begins to feel threatened by Veronica's ambition and skill behind the anchor desk.
That moment, when they turn on each other, is when the film really catches fire; there's plenty to like in the first half or so, but as Veronica and Ron engage in a comically mismatched battle of wits, you feel the picture shift from goodness to greatness, the sheer manic energy of the enterprise giving a lift to even its weaker gags. Much of the film is trafficking in pure silliness--Ron's big "jazz flue" jam, the animated trip to "Pleasure Town," the overblown battle of the local news teams--but the film's real pulse is in the story of Veronica. McKay and Ferrell get to slyly have it both ways, both spoofing sexism and doing a bit of reveling in it; we're laughing at the Neanderthal notions of the guys in the newsroom, but we're laughing with them a little as well, which is wise way to keep a goofy 70s comedy from turning into a polemic that turns off much of its target audience. (McKay--whose recent The Other Guys surprised audiences with its trenchant critique of Bush-era greed--is showing himself, even this early, to be a pretty good smuggler of social commentary.)
That sort of parallelism makes even the trickiest jokes work--you wouldn't think a knock-down drag-out man-woman brawl could land, but damned if this one doesn't. Much of the picture's success is also due to the invaluable Applegate, who somehow manages to play it both straight and with a twist. She puts across her sighing attraction for "Mr. Burgundy" with as much credibility as possible, and seems to have put in some real work to make Veronica look and sound just right--the slightly stiff on-camera style, the serious-business body language, the stylized way she smokes her cigarettes. But watch, just watch, the way she reacts in the seconds after he drops the "f-bomb" during a newscast--that blend of disbelief and giddiness is sheer perfection.
McKay surrounds them with stellar supporting cast; the comic personalities of Rudd, Carrell, Koechner, and Fred Willard complement each other evenly and skillfully, and the cameos by faces familiar (Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Tim Robbins) and soon to be (Seth Rogen, Paul F. Tompkins, Chris Parnell, Fred Armisen) give the picture little lifts throughout. Many of the faces here would dominate comedy on the big and small screen in the years following Anchorman's success, often for Judd Apatow, who produced this film and seemed to find the template for his overloaded, improvisation-heavy style of working. There's plenty that doesn't work (the anachronistic slang, the occasional over-told joke, the anti-climactic climax), but laugh-wise, the movie still delivers.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy first came onto my radar in 2002, when I read a script review by "Moriarty" (aka Drew McWeeny) on Ain't It Cool. Of the film, then titled Ron Burgandy, Action News Man!, he wrote, "...neither of us can believe that anyone ever sat down to write this thing in the first place. It's that deranged." The film lost some of the harder edges mentioned in that review, but six years on, Anchorman remains a ridiculous, uproarious, daringly out-there comedy.
"Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" is now available on Blu-ray, in the "Rich Mahogany Edition," exclusively from Best Buy. For full A/V and (extensive) bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.