With the recent demise of At the Movies, various clips of classic arguments, pans and raves have received regular play on blogs. One of the most frequently cited, and truly one of the finest moments of the program, is the hilarious split between Siskel & Ebert for the abysmal early '90s comedy Cop and a Half. Siskel, essentially speaking for the nation, hated the film, and his open-faced astonishment at Ebert's thumbs up conveyed the collective reaction of the audience. Cop and a Half became an occasional reference point in the pair's arguments for the last five years of their partnership, possibly replacing Siskel's fondness for fat jokes when looking for an easy jab at his rival.
Yet Ebert's obstinate refusal to feel bad about liking the film, even years later, reveals something important about dumb comedies: if you laugh, you've got to give them a positive write-up. And, God help me, few contemporary screen comedians make me laugh as hard as Will Ferrell. Yes, dear reader, he does the same thing in every film, and at times his shtick wears dangerously thin, but when he works, he works brilliantly. There's something enticing about coiled-spring comedy, in which a mild-mannered individual calmly reacts to the world until suddenly exploding in pent-up rage. Some excel at this (John Cleese, Jason Lee), others simply come off as deranged (Adam Sandler, to a lesser extent Chris Farley). Ferrell is one who can manage it, presenting a thick-headed veneer of unflappable confidence and pride until someone finally points out what a fool he is, setting in motion the eruption.
With Ron Burgundy, Ferrell has a prime vehicle for communicating this talent. Set in the '70s, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy draws a broad caricature of a man with the intersecting lines of the "Me Generation" and the egotistical realm of the TV personality. Ron Burgundy doesn't do any reporting or fact-checking; furthermore, he seems barely literate, only just capable of reading what's placed on a teleprompter without ever stopping to make sure what is scrolling is correct or even logical. All he has going for him is a mustache made for television, and he acts like the arbiter of truth.
Anchorman, despite being set a decade later and being released four years earlier, almost seems like a preemptive parody of Mad Men: Ron, along with his chauvinist colleagues Champ (David Koechner), Brian (Paul Rudd) and functionally retarded Brick (Steve Carell), act remarkably like Don Draper and co. They drink in the office, act as if no law can bind them and hit on every woman in the office as if there solely as a sexual outlet. So self-absorbed are the men that, when the program's boss (Fred Willard) tells the gang that the network wants more "diversity" on the news staff, Ron believes that the word refers to "an old, old wooden ship from the Civil War era."
Casting Christina Applegate as Veronica, the ambitious reporter who benefits from this rearrangement, was a stroke of genius. Applegate's talents can be hit and miss, but when she's on, she can throw back anything chucked at her by a gaggle of male comedians, even when playing the stereotypically career-driven woman who just needs the love of a boorish man to set her on the "proper" life track of a woman. That aspect of the film is as much a joke as anything else, and it's nice that Applegate's most absurd moments involve her falling for an idiot like Ron instead of the film ever trying to sell this as a positive view of relationships.
There is an intense danger in attempting to tie higher aims to films with such Neanderthal premises, but this goofy vision of '70s local news has a smart side to it. Anchorman's placement as the first in the incomplete "Mediocre American Man" trilogy was fortuitously timed to the celebration of mediocrity and incompetence that defined the zeitgeist of the Bush administration, and Bush provided Ferrell with his biggest break on Saturday Night Live. Looking back, the endless jokes on Bush's stupidity that Ferrell conveyed during the 2000 campaign seem frothy and lightweight, little jabs thrown at a man with not much background to speak of even as the governor of a state. But jump forward eight years to Ferrell's taped one-man show, in which he trotted out the Bush character for one last run before sending him out to pasture (or behind a shed). You're Welcome America had the same focal point -- Bush's astonishing ignorance even after eight years on the job -- but what had once been cheeky now seemed vicious and outraged. No longer was Ferrell amused that a moron was running for high office; now he couldn't believe that the country had allowed such a man to run riot for nearly a decade. (In the final scene, Anchorman takes this one step further by saying that Brick would go on to be one of Bush's top advisers, an act that both homages Animal House and caters to this admittedly stretched view of the movie.)
This film, made in 2004, conveys some of that disgust, far removed as it is from politics. The outrage over a woman penetrating the homoerotic inner circle ("It is anchor-MAN, not anchor-LADY, and that is a scientific fact!" screams a belligerent Champ) shows men acting like children. Nearly all of the film's humor stems from jokes at Ron's expense, from his arrogance that is unjustified by either physical attractiveness or mental acuity to his dated belief in what's proper for women. Veronica fights to be seen as an equal, resenting the fluff pieces she gets assigned to by sexist bosses, but Ron's stories are no more important. Only Ron's gravitas makes his items seem vital, but he reports on water-skiing squirrels and the odd wild animal sighting. If this film comments on the pride Americans take in ignorance, then this angle can be seen as an attack on the vacuity of news programs and their perennial inability to cover relevant topics in favor of pandering to the broadest demographic for ratings. The Channel 4 news team thinks a panda giving birth is national news in the wake of Watergate, just as CNN now devotes increasingly less time to anything important and flounders about looking for some trite human-interest piece to save ratings. Hell, even the hysterical rivalry between news channels (other factions led by Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, even Tim Robbins) resembles the incessant pissing contest between 24-hour news channels, and Channel 4's pure arrogance and pride for their drivel matches Fox's own.
Oh, but why weigh down the film with such a reading when its enjoyment lies in its absurdity and its endless one-liners? Quite so, but I believe that Anchorman's cleverness runs deeper than its surface titters. Satire, it ain't, but out of all the pictures put out by Adam McKay and his various collaborators in the subset of the Apatow talent pool, this is by far the most fully realized and insanely re-watchable, precisely because there's some overarching plan to all of this. It may not be an expulsion of the filmmakers' political angst, but the derth of a point that makes Talladega Nights only intermittently entertaining is wholly absent here. Apart from an ending that must surely have come to the gang while under the influence of controlled substances, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy remains one of the funniest and best-cast comedies of the last decade, so funny that even a long-ass collection of outtakes could be haphazardly fashioned into a "sequel" that is also riotous. Maybe it can rise no higher than the status of "lazy Sunday" film, but aren't the movies just so much better when they bring you out of boredom anyway? Stay classy.