There aren’t many actors who could get a huge laugh out of the line “Milk was a bad choice,” but count Will Ferrell among them. The throwaway joke — which, more than likely, was improvised by Ferrell — is a moment of comic genius.
To get the full impact, however, you’ll have to venture into Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, a wild and crazy comedy that finds Ferrell hamming it up as a beloved news anchor situated in San Diego in the swinging ’70s. Ron Burgundy is part of a Channel 4 news team that includes at-large reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), a slick ladies man with a penchant for noxious colognes, sexually confused sportscaster Champ (David Koechner), and weatherman Brick (Steve Carell), who’s as thick as his name implies. Into their hallowed all-male newscasting frat arrives Veronica Cornerstone (Christina Applegate), a silken blonde reporter with — gasp! — anchor aspirations.
“It’s anchorman!” shrieks a threatened Ferrell. “Not anchorlady!”
The movie’s narrative is, of course, incidental to its Whitman’s Sampler of grin and giggle-inducing gags, which grow increasingly absurd as the minutes tick by. By the time the Channel 4 team faces off in a West Side Story-style rumble with the city’s other news teams — a deliriously funny sequence that includes a death by trident — you know you’ve fully entered a world that prizes over-the-top silliness above all else. (The scene is later topped, believe it or not, by the news team’s hand-to-hand combat with a den of Kodiak bears.)
If Anchorman resides in that land of extreme sophomorics, at least it has at its core something worth satirizing, notably the male chauvinism of the seventies, not to mention the fact that the big local news stories of the day tended not to be about the latest terrorism alert, but about when the zoo’s pregnant panda might give birth.
Written by Ferrell and former Saturday Night Live head-writer Adam McKay (who also directs), Anchorman skewers the seventies without making the decade the central focus (a mistake made by Starsky & Hutch, for instance). Ferrell’s character is an egomaniac, a sexist pig, and very much a dolt (he’ll read verbatim anything scrolled before him on the TelePromTer), but the actor somehow makes him loveable. When Burgundy hits the skids — a decline prompted by a startling act of aggression toward his beloved dog — we actually feel sorry for the guy. (It doesn’t hurt that Ferrell takes overwrought grief to desperately funny new heights.) Ferrell is a blatantly shameless comic — he’ll do anything for a laugh. And lucky for him (and for us), the uninhibited approach suits the crazy characters he concocts.
A man who has trouble grasping the maxim “When in RomeÂ…” and only truly takes offense if his hair is criticized, Burgundy — whose model to some extent is the preening, moronic Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show — is a fount of ridiculously inflated utterances such as “By the beard of Zeus!” (A mildly amusing final credits outtakes sequence shows how much improvisation went into creating such bizarre exclamations.)
Ferrell surrounds himself with a first-rate crew. Carell’s mentally-inert Brick is of particular note, stealing every scene he comes into contact with. Rudd looks like he stepped out of a ’70s porno and Koechner’s sportscaster has a larger-than-life outer-bullishness and a soft, marshmallowy center.
Applegate holds her own against this male-dominated troupe, offering up some screen gems of her own. “I’m good at three things,” she roars during an argument with the station’s news director (the great Fred Willard, regrettably underutilized), “fighting, screwing and reading the news!”
Anchorman may not be Ferrell’s comic pinnacle, but it does just fine for the moment. Watching Ferrell and crew put the uproar in uproarious makes you forget, if only for a while, today’s worst news.