I’ve come to realize that Will Ferrell’s secret comic weapon is the dullness of his eyes. No, really, bear with me here: he’s mastered the art of the blank stare, a look that seems to suggest that something you said just isn’t quite sinking in. (Which is why his Saturday Night Live impressions of George W. Bush were painfully on target.) It only serves to heighten the effect of his buffoonery; in the excellent Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Ferrell employs that slow-witted stare along with a clueless arrogance and precise comic timing, often a few significant seconds off. That stare — plus his total lack of shame about removing his shirt and showing off that worryingly hirsute barrel chest — is what makes this Ferrell’s movie.
Anchorman revolves around the all-male KVWN Channel 4 News Team, headed by the obnoxiously narcissistic Ron Burgundy. But their boys’ club is threatened by the new hiring (to comply with “diversity” standards) of the ambitious Veronica Corningstone (played by a very good Christina Applegate). It’s a satire, to be sure, but arguably director and co-writer Adam McKay is far too polite about who and what he skewers — ’70s machismo, the idiocy of local television news, the insufferableness of San Diego as a whole — to cause any discomfort. (McKay isn’t a satirist like, say, Dave Chappelle.) Indeed, there’s something almost touching, if you will, about all the masculine anxiety on display.
McKay isn’t even much of a social observer. For a film about a newsroom, there’s little about the rhythms of news-gathering. There’s a good reason, for instance, why Mike Judge’s Office Space is still so revered in certain quarters today: for an ostensibly trifling comedy, it’s also frighteningly accurate about the details of work.
Anchorman, on the other hand, is set in no known reality; it’s a universe where people play jazz flute at the drop of a hat, dogs talk to bears, and reporters are dismembered, Lancelot du Lac-style. What makes the film shine is the rate at which the absurdities and non sequiturs are lobbed at the audience, with Ferrell (who’s also the co-writer) as the main pie thrower. In this respect, Ferrell is really more of a clown, but a clown — and this is the crucial part — who’s too dumb to recognize his own silliness.
Ferrell is surrounded by a fantastic ensemble cast, which includes Paul Rudd and Fred Willard. Their performances are one-note — particularly in the case of Steve Carell’s character, a simpering moron of a weatherman (oops, I meant “meteorologist”) — but they’re close to a kind of perfect pitch. (Watch for a cameo-laden extended joke towards the end about a showdown between rival news teams; it’s excruciatingly funny.)
Anchorman is fairly shapeless; it really is just a collection of sketches, loosely organized around a mere skeleton of a plot. Even before you see the outtakes during the closing credits, you can kind of tell which scenes are ad-libbed — probably most of them, if I could make a guess, because the lines are sometimes so fascinatingly random. But if anything, the looseness is something of a virtue in this case. You can detect the seams of the film’s haphazard construction more clearly: as a series of situations and riffs. But it’s not a series of gags, as in a Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker movie like Top Secret!; there’s far more willingness in McKay’s film — and again, this is crucial — to dare to make no sense.