Sometime last summer, out of boredom, perhaps, but also because I was hoping for a good laugh honestly earned, I dragged myself off to a late show of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, starring Will Ferrell as the titular head of a fictional San Diego TV news team in the mid ‘70s. Despite my low expectations (I’ve never been much of a fan of Ferrell’s mix of wide-eyed innocence curdled slightly by salaciousness and aggressive absurdity), Ferrell’s performances in Old School and Elf went a long way toward breaking down my resistance, and after a few minutes I found myself grooving happily on the movie’s warped wavelength.
Anchorman goes beyond the polyester fetishizing of a ‘70s nostalgia exercise like Starsky and Hutch—the bad fashions and terrible interior décor are all there, but they’re never the point. The movie has other perversions on its mind, and they’re seated squarely in the lap of its star (or is that tent pole Burgundy waves around at one point just, as he claims, a result of bad pleating?) Ferrell’s work here is the ne plus ultra of his unswerving commitment to the most logically uncomfortable and exasperatingly hilarious extensions of the personas he creates. Ron Burgundy is Ted Baxter without standards and practices, a willfully chauvinist, on-set scotch-swilling anchorman whose entire world revolves around his surreal identification with himself and the rest of his on-air news team as a local variety of celebrity royalty (the glimpses of his audience suggest, in their enthusiasm and awe over his nightly appearances on their TVs, that his fiefdom is at least momentarily secure). It is a fiefdom, however, thrown into tumult by the appearance of an equally ambitious newswoman (Christina Applegate) who eventually becomes his co-anchor and threatens the very fabric of Burgundy’s fragile frat-house worldview. The movie’s feminism is of a certain age as well, but then it’s never really the point anyway. Applegate’s character is allowed her attempts to enlighten these baboons, but she also gets to partake in the horseplay—a hilarious insult give-and-take between her and Burgundy as the credits roll on one newscast is a tribute to her improvisatory spunk. And the “unrated” scenes on the recent DVD release are two worthy and pretty funny additions that detail further humiliations for our hero after the newsman’s VHF Camelot finally crumbles.
As good as Ferrell is here-- his unaffected, and unwarranted, confidence, bizarre utterances (“By the great throne of Zeus!”) and willingness to read from the TelePrompTer without regard (a typo results in a giggle fit-inducing reading of his signature sign-off phrase, “You stay classy, San Diego?”) are the stuff of balls-out comic gold—he’s surrounded by a terrific cast of gamers, including Paul Rudd, Vince Vaughn and Fred Willard, and he’s matched perverse moment for perverse moment by The Daily’s Show’s Steve Carell as a beyond-witless weatherman who cheerfully describes himself as “perhaps mentally retarded.” Carell achieves a kind of deer-in-the-headlights Zen perfection when considering the infiltration of this female into their heretofore unsullied boys club: “I hear their menses attracts bears.” Anchorman sags toward the end, when the necessities of narrative tidiness come calling (not that their call is much heeded anywhere else in the film), but considered whole it would seem churlish to hold an occasional dead spot against a movie with so much commitment to the excesses and misplaced swagger of a man like Ron Burgundy. It ain’t heavy, it’s just hilarious.
Not that you’d know it, though, by the testimony of one single other person I know. Since enduring my hearty recommendation of the movie, I can think of at least five people, in whose instincts for comedic appreciation I hold quite a bit of trust, whose reaction to Anchorman has been either flat-out distaste, disgust and/or confusion over my enthusiasm for it, or a simple inability to endure much more than 15 minutes or so before ejecting the DVD and moving on to another, presumably much more satisfying title. This includes my best friend Bruce, on whom I sprung jackass: the movie last fall with much more success (he has since passed on his enthusiasm for that movie to others who, despite his initial nervousness, have responded with the proper busted-gut reaction).
Bruce and I can usually count on pretty good instincts for knowing what the other will find fall-down funny, but I felt jackass was a shakier limb than most on which to crawl out, and I count Bruce’s response, and our subsequent attempts to divine just what about that madness is so damned funny, as one of the most satisfying movie-watching experiences I had last year. But this year there’s this inexplicable rift in the space-time-comedy continuum: my thumbs-up for Anchorman were quickly lopped off in favor of opposable appendages thrust in the air for Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, a movie I found, with the exception of Gary Cole in a spot-on of an ESPN play-by play announcer and Jason Bateman as his slacker color analyst, as funny as a direct hit to the groin. But wait a minute—doesn’t jackass feature its share of hits to the groin? Well, yeah, except in jackass it’s funny, see?! And right there, in a nutshell, is why there can ultimately be no further argument between parties who hold movies like Dodgeball and Anchorman as opposing examples in a battle over which one is funnier, or why one is funny and the other is not. More often than almost any other movie genre, comedy is susceptible to the variances of mood of its audience. And when movie comedies like Anchorman or Dodgeball are built more as frameworks from which to hang absurdities and potty humor, rather than for characters to navigate through a rich story that may give even more organic rise to the same elements, mood and personal taste in the audience become even more important. I can with much more ease react well to Anchorman myself or respect why someone else wouldn’t than I could understand the response of someone who felt indifferent to, say, The Lady Eve.
So Patty agreed this past Saturday night to give Anchorman a shot, God bless her. She made it to the 15-minute mark and was still laughing here and there. Ha! I think we’re in! Finally somebody might see what I see in this hilarious mutt of a movie. Sometime around 45 minutes in, she asked me “how much longer this thing has left.” And ten minutes later she got up a fix herself a drink, so I paused the DVD, thinking she might enjoy the scene that was about to begin between Burgundy’s news team and three other local crews who gut out a ridiculously violent rumble in an abandoned warehouse district. I followed her into the kitchen and told her the movie would be waiting for her when she got back. She then admitted to me that she was hoping to duck out and miss a bunch of it so it would be over sooner. Heartbroken, I shuffled back to the TV and awaited her return. I don’t think she laughed once during the big news rumble. And within five minutes or so of her return she’d retreated to the iPod, becoming more and more depressed by what she saw as the movie’s grinding of one joke—Burgundy’s obliviousness—into a fine paste and refusing to just end. Imagine the fumes rising from her skull cap when, oblivious myself to just how much ire the movie had inspired in her, I casually passed through three of the movie’s bonus featurettes before I realized how close to violence the movie had driven her. (She sat poised with a letter opener ready to pierce my left eardrum, and had I not glanced over and then scrambled to shut off the DVD, I’d be writing this from the emergency room.) (A raised eyebrow of disbelief might not be inappropriate here, Dear Reader—Ed.)
Okay, so that’s six for six. Anchorman may, as Patty claimed, be a one-joke movie, but that joke isn’t driven into the ground so much as it is played upon to reveal multiple squiggles and variations on a theme. And it’s a very good joke, no matter how it’s played, and that, for me, this time, was good enough (God knows I’ve disdained many a movie comedy for beating one lame joke into the ground—The Waterboy being one example that many people obviously find to be plenty funny). So, despite my taste being questioned and vilified left and right to the point of persecution (Please see note in previous paragraph re raised eyebrow of disbelief--Ed.), I stand by my recommendation of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy for anyone who wants to laugh like a hyena for 90 minutes. You know who you are. And if you find yourself sitting stone-faced past the 15-minute mark, what can I say? Maybe you’ll like Dodgeball. Now please excuse me while I go off to lick my wounds by the cathode ray light of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle…