I’m not a big Will Ferrell fan. His time on SNL is probably the textbook definition of how to do sketch comedy well, but his movies are hit or miss at best. Stranger than Fiction is the only really good film Will Ferrell has made in about a decade. I enjoy some of his sophomoric Adam McKay-directed, Jud Apatow produced comedies (Semi-Pro, Blades of Glory), but mostly even with the ones I enjoy, I know that they are broadly written collections of cheap laughs. The worst of the films (Talledega Nights, Step Brothers) are borderline unwatchable except for having a rare funny or quotable moment here or there. He basically took his Frank the Tank character from Old School and found minor permutations and ways to change it to essentially play the same character for a decade strong now. It’s time to vary up your career with more challenging roles Mr. Ferrell. Still, even the cynical, angry curmudgeon in me must admit that the leading man role that got Will Ferrell his big break in Hollywood is the definition of a modern cult classic. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy remains eight years later one of the most quotable films of the aughts (along with The Hangover although not quite as consistently funny asThe Hangover). It’s not the most intellectual comedy ever written but it’s complete embrace of the absurd and surrealism means its still able to make me laugh my ass off all of these years later.

Set in the 1970s, Anchorman is the story of a fictional TV news program in San Diego just when feminism in the workplace was on the rise. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the chauvinistic, womanizing, moron that is lead anchor for the Channel 4 news program which is the number one show in the San Diego area. Along with his co-reporters including the mentally disabled weatherman Brick (Steve Carrell), the possibly homosexual sports broadcaster Champ (David Koechner), and the rakish field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Ron is the cock of the walk in San Diego, worshiped by his legion of viewers and the women he parties with. But when ambitious and sexy hard-nosed reporter Veronica (Christina Applegate) shows up in the news room, things get shaken up very quickly. Despite Veronica’s better judgement, a romantic relationship blooms between Veronica and Ron but his sexism and her quick rise in the offices threatens to destroy their relationship as well as Ron’s entire career.

This is easily Will Ferrel’s most iconic role. It was the part that shot him to stardom and made everyone realize he could be a leading man rather than just a supporting sidekick or foil (though honestly, on film, I think that’s where he should go back to being because his solo work is less than impressive). If you were to ask the average Joe to name a Will Ferrell role off the top of their head, you have to think that Ron Burgundy or Frank the Tank would be the first answer given. And honestly, while there are definitely traces in this role of virtually every other Will Ferrell part from the last 8 years, he still manages to be very funny in this film. While his hyperactive, full-blown crazy side manages to elicit more laughs than it has in the intervening years, its his ability to dial the intensity down in this film and deliver the occasional deadpan joke that makes Ron Burgundy his most memorable celluloid creation. It doesn’t hurt that nearly everything that Ron Burgundy says is completely quotable but this is one of the rare Will Ferrell roles where he finds a balance between the two extreme sides of his acting persona. Christina Applegate isn’t especially funny in her role but as the “straight man” of the cast, she wasn’t meant to be. This film also turned out to be a break-out role (or one of several break out roles) for both Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell. Steve Carrell brings nearly as many classic Anchorman moments to the table as Will Ferrell does.

Trying to put my finger on the pulse of why this film is so endlessly quotable and enjoyable but Ferrell’s other films (which are structurally and stylistically similar) aren’t is difficult. Obviously, the film’s quotability plays a heavy part. The only reason I wound up watching this movie was because my sister hadn’t seen it, and throughout the entire film I was supplying the end to every punchline or non-sequitur (of which there are a lot). Anchorman is without question one of those films that grows on you with every viewing. I probably enjoyed it the first time I saw it but didn’t love it. Now, watching Anchorman is an exercise in getting to all of the great gags and set pieces. Speaking of set pieces, more than any of the other Adam McKay films, Anchorman has a serious bent to the surreal and absurd. Whether it’s the anchorman gang fight (where Brick stabs a man in the heart with a trident and Luke Wilson loses an arm), the jazz flute scene, or the part where Ron ends up in a zoo pit with bears, Anchorman tries to be as intentionally outrageous as possible. That’s part of the film’s charm. It crosses the line so many times (punting a dog off of a bridge for example) that you know not to try and take the movie seriously whatsoever. But it earns this comedic goodwill unlike the rest of Adam McKay’s ouevre (if you use the word ouevre in reference to Adam McKay, you probably aren’t his target audience).

The obvious payoff here is that in the face of all of the film’s truly hilarious moments, the moments where the jokes fall flat seem even more trite, boring, and lazy particularly in the face of the collected output of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay for the last ten years. Simply because this film laid the blocks in place for the rest of his movies, it robs the film of some of the freshness it had when first released. Still, even with those reservations, I haven’t stopped enjoying Anchorman after all of this time (it’s been several years since I’ve actually sat down and watched it), and it’s one of those films with lines that have entered my working, every day vocabulary. It’s not a perfect film, and it’s not Will Ferrell’s best movie. That’s certainly Stranger than Fiction. But as far as comedies that you can enjoy without having to put your thinking cap on, Anchorman might be the cat’s pajamas.

Final Score: B+

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