“Anchorman” away: Ferrell’s improvisation keeps “The Legend of Ron Burgundy”afloat

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”Dreamworks PicturesDirected by Adam McKayStarring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve CarellRated PG-13Running Time 91 Minutes

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Will Ferrell, having won the hearts and split the sides of college students and immature adults everywhere with his giant-baby-with-body-hair comedic persona, looks like he just might be growing up.

It’s not that his new film “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” starring Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd and Steve Carell isn’t a hilariously absurd 90-minute sketch comedy piece chock full of random acts of comedy-it is. Fans of Ferrell’s pervious work in films like “Old School” or his long and illustrious tenure on “Saturday Night Live” will not be disappointed by the never-ending series of unforeseeable comic gags. The jokes are often funny, childish and un-called for.

No, it’s not in the fact that “Anchorman” isn’t anything like Ferrell’s other efforts that audiences can see the actor’s maturation. The indicator that Ferrell is growing up is the fact that, for a very great deal of the time, the reason “Anchorman” floats instead of sinks is that Ferrell is finally beginning to become confident in his comedy chops, letting his well-trained eye for improvisation carry scenes far beyond where the script alone could possibly take them.

“Anchorman” is set to the backdrop of 1970s San Diego, with Ferrell and company as the players on the No. 1 news broadcasting team in the area, Channel 4.

Ferrell plays the namesake Ron Burgundy, the station’s imbecilic, but charming and good-natured, anchorman. He’s supported by Rudd as the lady-killing onsite reporter (with an office full of bizarre and pungent colognes), Brian Fantana; “The Daily Show’s” Carell as the weatherman with an IQ of 48, Brick Tamland; and Applegate as the ambitious blond bombshell, Veronica Corningstone, whose ovarian presence could conceivably bring ruin to the testosterone-fueled, all-male news broadcasting team.

The film starts out and all is well in Anchorland. Burgundy is the biggest celebrity in his ZIP code and his habitual harassment and objectification of every female he meets is not a problem-after all, he is Ron Burgundy and his news is bigger than your news. Of all the broadcast stations in the area-the perennial runners-up over at the Evening News, the ethnocentric anchor-hombre at the Spanish news station and the Mr. Rogers-esque gang over at public broadcasting-Burgundy’s Channel 4 is top dog…and everyone knows it.

But, as pressure from the higher-ups in the network mounts, Burgundy’s station manager (played by the inimitable Fred Willard) decides that a little diversity would do the station a whole mess of good. Enter Corningstone, with her tall, blond good looks and sabre-sharp mind. After all, what better way to shake things up than to-gasp!-throw a woman into the mix?

The only problem is that there has never, ever been a female anchor before and the idea is preposterous to everyone except Corningstone, who rightly feels that her, well, assets should not keep her from being in front of the camera.

That’s bad enough for Corningstone, who actually does possess the talent and charm to be a success, but add to the equation the fact the every male member of Channel 4 team feels intimidated like Napoleon in the presence of Wilt Chamberlain by her, and it looks bleak indeed for the ambitious femme fatale.

So, Corningstone does what any respectable ladder-climber would do when faced with her dilemma: she sleeps with the person who occupies the position she lusts after.

She and Burgundy forge a relationship that looks good in the beginning-he even respects her mind, sort of, in the way that a guy whose first pickup line went something like “and yes, my apartment is full of important leather-bound books and smells of fine mahogany” respects any woman’s mind-but things quickly turn as sour as the scotchy-scotch-scotch that Burgundy loves so much.

After a run-in with a menacingly insane motorcyclist-played by Jack Black for all of 60 seconds-results in the tragic booting of Burgundy’s beloved dog (think burrito, window, leather boot and aquatic plummet), he is late for the evening news. And, since the show must go on, a replacement must be found. Corningstone steps up and does the mistake-free job she knew she could do.

Corningstone is so good, actually, that she is appointed co-anchor to Burgundy, which, of course, spells relationship disaster for the two. The couple’s falling out involves trickery, deceit and a copy-machine fight, among things.

But the plot is really unimportant to the success of “Anchorman.” The film’s gags rarely have anything to do with what is going on in the story, and the film’s supposed premise is nothing more than a theoretical framework for Ferrell and his supporting cast to execute their improvisational hilarity.

Some of “Anchorman’s” best scenes are subtle asides that allow the actors to run wild. The rivalry between the local news stations is of “West Side Story” proportions, and Vince Vaughn is subversively sidesplitting as the perpetual loser and anchor for the No. 2 Evening News team.

A scene where all the news teams (with cameos from Tim Robbins, Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson, among others) meet in a drainage ditch to rumble with knives, baseball bats and chain saws is well-excecuted and self-aware of its own absurdity. The result is undeniably funny and postmodern.

There are too many great one-liners and set pieces in “Anchorman” to name. There are parts where the movie lapses into a nature film and others where the cast breaks out singing “Afternoon Delight.” And, if one joke flops, don’t fret-guaranteed, there will be hundreds more to follow.

It is possible, although difficult and somehow undeniably stupid, to view “Anchorman” as a commentary on the challenges faced by women in the chauvinistic world of 1970s TV news broadcasting.

In all fairness, McKay, the film’s director (and “Saturday Night Live” alum, along with Ferrell and a handful of other celebs with cameos throughout the movie) did have four female broadcast anchors on the payroll as consultants. But that is about all the reasoning there is to consider “Anchorman” anything but totally absurd. The film opens with the qualification that it “is based on actual events. Only the names, places and events have been changed,” and the very last words in the movie, spoken by Ferrell in an out take after all the credits have rolled, are “I can’t do this. This is just ridiculous.”

There is not an underlying message in “Anchorman.” The film never tries to impart on the audience any sort of moral. The movie does not stray from the improvisational sketch comedy roots of its stars and director-and thank God. “Anchorman” succeeds at being exactly what it is-nothing to be taken seriously, at all. The movie may have a point-though anyone’s guess is fair game-and the only way to miss it is to look for one.

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