On the Spot News

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004

Over the past century, film geniuses have erected many a cathedral of style, solemn structures of tradition and cohesion, the highest projection of the imagination: Swedish Realism, German Expressionism, Spanish Poetic Realism, Italian Neorealism, Danish Dogmatism.

To this hallowed list does Will Ferrell's "Anchorman" petition for admission. Its contribution: San Diego Neo-Infantilism.

Are you listening, Cahiers du Cinema?

Anyhow, the movie, which is extremely funny, might be said to represent a triumph of tone over sense. It's a skit, but so ingeniously constructed and convincingly executed that it manages to sustain its energy far beyond sketch length. It never becomes tedious and strained, as did another recent exercise of high stylization, "Down With Love."

The fundamental premise of "Anchorman" is that men are babies. It's set in a universe of bald demand for instant gratification, extreme bitterness when denied and, worst of all, not enough drape in the lapels. Its basic philosophical position might be summed up as: Waaaaah, me want, me need, me important, me fabulous, waaaaaah! And those are the 40-year-olds.

It hews brilliantly to that line, only rarely breaking mood, never losing its nerve and always generating humor. It's certainly the role that Ferrell was born to play: It caters exactly to his strengths -- the hyper-exaggerated mannerisms of the "Saturday Night Live" sketch -- and avoids his weaknesses, which would be something called "replicating believable human behavior."

Ferrell is cast as Ron Burgundy, anchorman of the leading local news team in California's loveliest city, a man of such charisma that his bravado sign-off line -- "San Diego, stay classy!" -- has become a source of civic pride. This anchorman -- and so many others of that era -- with his floppy mop of ruddy hair, firm chin, ball-bearing eyes, warming basso profundo, is the center of the zeitgeist, up there with quarterbacks and talk show hosts as culture heroes. He's so overwhelming that nobody has yet noted that he's really, really stupid.

The time is the early '70s, that demimonde of wide tie, bell-bottom slacks, stripe, dot and check, a plasticized zing to fabric, sideburns like spear points, cool jazz, all this under the guidance of the age's leading guru, the all-wise, all-seeing Hugh Hefner. "Anchorman" includes it all except the monstrous Hefner, a surprising lack.

Directed by "SNL" veteran writer Adam McKay (who co-wrote the film with Ferrell), "Anchorman" watches with abject fascination the arrival of that new thing to the male-dominated workplace, the woman professional. The woman is Veronica Corningstone (the underrated Christina Applegate), the new reporter with anchor aspirations, and when she arrives in fluffy girlie clothes of the time, under a feathery frost of Farrah hair, who would suspect the revolution had just begun? But she's smart, classy, talented, beautiful -- and the boys can't wait to accidentally brush up against her. The movie is ruthless about the casual predominance of sexual harassment as a workplace style in those years, after the advent of the birth control pill but before the arrival, quite, of feminism.

The source of much mirth in "Anchorman" isn't just the self-deluding Burgundy himself -- though Ferrell is typically brilliant at projecting a character without a shred of inner life or self-awareness -- but also his little coterie of on-air stud boys. They see themselves as four horsemen outlined against a diamond-blue, eternal April sky, but of course they're really four horses' asses on a one-way trip toward oblivion. Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd with his own Royal Air Force mustache; why did guys then think that was so cool?) is Mr. Cologne; he knows the right man-perfume dabbed on his neck gets him to chick heaven. Steven Carell is Brick Tamland, the weatherman, whose IQ approaches that of the object for which he's named and whose continual inability to understand reality is endlessly funny. Finally, sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) wears ten-gallon hats, makes poo-poo faces and boo-boo sound effects for comic relief among the guys (how unfunny they are is really funny) and is secretly gay.

The men fight the ascension of Veronica and the new woman she represents; the joke is how ridiculously inefficient their campaign is and how utterly it's ignored by station management (Fred Willard and Chris Parnell). The guys, it turns out, have no chops, no arguments, no resources, no skills, nothing except the maleness that has been at the center of their entitlement their whole lives. It's a particularly brilliant conceit: the dumb fighting the inevitable under the impression that they're noble, not dumb.

Some of the episodes are a little less effective than others. A fantasy fight among news teams somewhat breaks the mood, and Ron's collapse after catastrophe, while never meant to be confused with Swedish Realism, still feels a little overdone to me.

But the reality of the movie can be summed up crisply: You will laugh. Then you will laugh some more. Then you will laugh still again.

Anchorman (91 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mock violence and endless immature sex jokes.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company