Movies

Triumph of the Will

Anchorman is messy, crude, and brilliant.

Laugh like this idiot
Laugh like this idiot

Watching Anchorman (DreamWorks) took me back to a night in the ‘70s when the local anchorman sat one table away from my family at a restaurant. It was between the 6 o’clock and 11 o’clock news, so he had traces of caramel pancake make-up. But it was the guy’s hair that I couldn’t take my eyes off: so wavy and luxuriant and dark and confident, like his voice, which had such booming resonance you could hear it all over the restaurant—whether you wanted to or not. No ordinary mortal was in our midst. Even if all he did was read other peoples’ words off a TelePrompTer, the camera invested this boob with the kind of authority that made him seem more real than any of us.

Anchorman comes on as a satire of this kind of ‘70s local celebrity—who loomed even larger back then, a prologue reminds us, when we were stuck with maybe three local stations and PBS. Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the movie with the director, Adam McKay, plays Ron Burgundy, one of those helmet-hair anchors and a swaggering San Diego demigod. Everyone from infants to bikers watches Burgundy in awe. We’re in awe, too, although for different reasons. It might have something to do with those thick, dark eyebrows and that heavy caterpillar mustache that doesn’t quite make it up to the bottom of his nose: The macho grooming doesn’t go with the baby face. When he struts around shirtless, fancying himself quite the babe magnet, his sparse chest hair dry and curly, the lack of any visible musculature is breathtaking. His attempt at seducing Christina Applegate as the station’s new hire, Veronica Corningstone, is the first of the movie’s many gross-outs. When his braggadocio doesn’t work, Burgundy stammers, lamely, “I want to be … on you.” He can’t understand why she doesn’t regard this as the luckiest day of her life.

Burgundy is a macho dinosaur waiting for his feminist comeuppance, and it comes when Veronica is named co-anchor of the evening news. The movie is about their ferocious love-hate relationship, and about the way Veronica’s success empowers the subservient women at the station. It’s about a love that somehow transcends the age-old battle of the sexes—

No, scratch that. Anchorman is about pushing the outside of the envelope. Pushing it all the way to Pluto.

You have to imagine a narrative structure that is extremely conventional: Beat by beat, the movie could be that awful Robert Redford-Michelle Pfeiffer picture Up Close and Personal (1996). Ferrell and McKay take that template and add jokes. They add jokes so broad that scene after scene goes past dumb, past unreal, and into some stratosphere of camp that throws you totally out of the movie. Manly men discussing love break unselfconsciously into a dainty pop tune, then snap back into their brusque man-talk. Burgundy and his sports guy (David Koechner) and weatherman (Steve Carell) and investigative reporter (Paul Rudd) cross paths with rival anchor teams like street gangs: They trade insults about toilets and their mothers, and, in one spectacular sequence packed with star cameos, they go at it with guns and knives and medieval instruments. You’re not laughing at anchormen. You’re laughing at formula movie rituals blown sky-high.

Ferrell has that self-intoxicated jiggle of the head down pat, but he isn’t one of those natural clowns with rubbery features and an infinitely moldable body. His timing isn’t the sharpest; he’s not a virtuoso. But he gets huge laughs, because he’s not afraid to take a joke to the next level, the way the Marx Brothers always did. No, Anchorman doesn’t have that kind of linguistic sophistication—although it’s often wonderfully deft, as when Burgundy greets his date, Veronica, with the line, “It truly is beauty and the beast—and a handsome beast at that.” The movie has a free-associational quality, and something else: an atmosphere of fooling around and taking chances. This grab-bag approach has an amazing cumulative power, so that the frequent clunkers don’t matter: You’re finally just relaxed and happy, grooving on the cast and waiting to get smacked with the next outlandish gag.

It should be said that Anchorman is a shockingly ugly movie, and that the lighting does no favors for Christina Applegate, whose face is weirdly tight in some shots. Its preoccupations are smutty and infantile, its targets obvious. Yet it strides above its crudeness like a colossus. It’s smart people telling dumb jokes with a brilliant sense of irony. Anchorman gives you permission to laugh like an idiot.