One of the many reasons Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) is so funny is the way Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy plays the jazz flute with absolutely no regard to making the playing seem realistic. Burgundy has been requested by the owner of the restaurant to regale the customers with some live music. Embarrassed, he protests, claiming he’s not prepared; when the owner presses, Burgundy sheepishly acquiesces then smoothly produces an orchestra-grade flute from his sleeve. While we hear on the soundtrack a blistering improvisational number, his fingers awkwardly fumble along the instrument in a stupid, slovenly ballet. Forget about the distance between Burgundy’s mouth and the flute; the fingering, if it produced sound at all, would be such a mangled mess of notes. This unbridled silliness, this disregard for any kind of logic, believability, or relation to reality is absolutely hilarious in the way that only audacious stupidity can be. When Anchorman works, which is very frequently, it’s in the spirit of this audacious stupidity, the kind that dictates that five different news teams would spontaneously engage in a bloody battle royale (with the only rule being that the hair and face are protected), or a man could understand his dog provided it isn’t speaking Spanish, or that four men—none of them terribly sensitive, one of them mentally disabled—would be able to break out in a pitch-perfect rendition of “Afternoon Delight” just at the mere mention of love.
The legend of Ron Burgundy is the tale of a local news station in 1970s San Diego, where the on-air team, led by Burgundy, is exclusively male—until the network heads (which I’m not sure a local station would have, but nonetheless) insist on adding a little diversity to the team and hire Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). At first Burgundy is unconcerned but that may be because he thinks “diversity” is an old ship used during the Civil War era. Veronica’s presence upsets the others including the sports reporter Champ Kind (David Koechner) and feature reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd). Weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) is relatively unfazed but he puts mayonnaise in the toaster so who knows what he thinks. Brick’s main concern is a rumor he heard that female menstruation attracts bears. Victoria overcomes the entrenched sexism and rises at the station and she and Burgundy begin a relationship.
That relationship is torn asunder on a fateful day when Burgundy, driving along the freeway, throws a burrito out of his car that hits and wrecks a motorcyclist played by Jack Black. When Burgundy stops his car to check on the accident, the biker takes Burgundy’s beloved dog Baxter and punts him off a bridge. If that sounds incomprehensible, you should hear Burgundy try to explain what happened over the phone. This cataclysm leads to Burgundy missing the broadcast and being replaced with Veronica. Burgundy’s true sexist colors come out when his screen time is threatened, and he is stunned when he realizes that Veronica’s ambition was real. “I thought it was a joke,” he screams about her dream of being an anchor. “I even wrote it in my diary; ‘Veronica made a very funny joke today.’ I laughed about it that night.”
From then on, Veronica and Burgundy are professional enemies, and before the movie is over Burgundy will be out of a job, exiled in his own community and come to accept gender equality. The plot, of course, is secondary to the pervasive silliness that buoys the movie’s best bits, like the news producer’s increasingly serious phone conversations with his child’s teachers (when the boy is caught with pornography at school, the producer is shocked to find out that his teacher Sister Margaret is unfamiliar with the publication), a rival anchor who keeps losing arms despite them being clearly under his sports coat, and a detailed review of Sex Panther, a cologne that claims to work “60% of the time, all the time” but is so repugnant that it’s described as a diaper filled with Indian food.
When the movie’s working, it builds its bits to a frothing boil and every line lands; much of this is the effect of Ferrell’s infectious determination and commitment to a self-absorbed bombast who is too unaware to be offensive, too stupid to be mean. When he calls Veronica a pirate hooker during their lean times, he says it with the same dim understanding as when he proclaimed they would be wed on top of a mountain when their love was strong. He’s a child with words, each meaning no more or less than the one that preceded it; that’s why the phrase that causes his downfall, when he mistakenly signs off the broadcast by saying “Go fuck yourself, San Diego,” a phrase maliciously planted in the teleprompter, is so easy for him; he doesn’t even realize he’s said it. For him words are nothing.
Surround him by a news team of equal ridiculousness and you have an ensemble of uncommon quality. Often, comedies of extraordinary stupidity can crumble beneath their own weight, but Anchorman rarely does because Applegate’s Veronica does the thankless but necessary work of acting as the straight foil to the madness. As she’s a gifted comedienne, it’s a shame she doesn’t get to shine more, but look at her reactions and knowing glances; she’s perfect in quiet moments. Unfortunately for her the movie isn’t about quiet moments.
It’s about dumbness, simple unadulterated idiocy. To satisfy my snobbish film literacy, I could make it seem as if these morons are a searing indictment of head-in-the-sand sexism but they’re just morons. If they are indictments of anything, it’s of the theory of evolution, which should’ve cleared these buffoons out centuries ago. But I’m glad they avoided the evolutionary chop, it’s nice to have these clueless benign buffoons around to laugh at.