Will FERRELL is the best thing to hit mainstream American movie comedy since the Farrellys thwacked it with spit and giggles. In his brief, ever-brightening film career, the funnyman has staked a claim on comedy with a screen persona that embodies the age-old struggle between innocence and knowledge, between the wonderment of childhood and the gnawing disenchantments of adulthood. It's a persona that innocently pokes a stick at the fallen world with a great big "why" — as in, "Why can't a grown man be one of Santa's elves?" — and no matter the answer, continues on its joyfully guileless way.
Ferrell's latest and most successful bid at comic transcendence, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," takes place in a 1970s that's as seemingly shut off from reality as a TV sitcom. That's to the point since the movie's title character is cut from the same madras cloth as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" Ted Baxter. Immortalized during that decade by the late, great Ted Knight as the embodiment of clueless male chauvinism, Baxter initially also registered as a symbol of TV's brain-deadening dangers — he was, quite literally, the boob in the tube. Baxter remained a boor through the show's long run (he never did fully get with the women's lib program), but the wonder of the character was that he also became redemptively human.
Burt Reynolds, Burgundy leads a San Diego news team with supremely Baxter-like élan — and irresistibility. Together with his three comrades in televised arms (wonderfully played by Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner), the anchorman rules the local airwaves with a mouthful of pearly whites, a head stuffed with sawdust and an unassailable belief in his own charm. In the age before political correctness, much less the new Puritanism, Burgundy lustily swills Scotch and serial-puffs cigarettes, often just before airtime, and treats every woman as if she were wearing bunny ears and little else. Such is his faith in the permanence and rightness of his world that he's woefully unprepared when diversity comes calling — he barks out his sexist jabs like someone with Tourette's.
Brought in to shake up the newsroom, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, giving as good as she gets) rocks Burgundy's world hard. Inevitably, this Ken and Barbie enter the war between the sexes, in time unleashing an enmity reminiscent of the era's other major smack-downs — Norman Mailer versus Germaine Greer, Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King, the Bionic Man versus the Bionic Woman. Like Burgundy's sense of preening entitlement, the couple's rivalry gives the story its hook and inspires cascades of laughter. But what takes the whole thing pleasurably over the top, turning a goof into a total gas, is the film's pitch-perfect absurdist comedy and warmth. Like a Samuel Beckett character, Burgundy comes face to face with his own meaninglessness, but unlike in Beckett the void that opens here doesn't totally bum the newsman (or us) out.
Tightly directed by newcomer Adam McKay, a former head writer on "Saturday Night Live" who cooked up the screenplay with Ferrell, "Anchorman" never reaches the sublime heights of that modern comedy classic "There's Something About Mary." Big deal — it's a hoot nonetheless and the scaled-down aspirations seem smart. This is only the second film that Ferrell has carried and, wisely, he and McKay have kept their sights focused on buffing the comic's singular mirthful style. (They're out to make us laugh, not reinvent the genre.) Even so, while "Anchorman" doesn't have the epic reach of "Mary," it shares that film's core of sincerity. Like the Farrellys at their best and Christopher Guest, who's carved out a place in the comic firmament with satires such as "Best in Show," Ferrell is tapping into the human comedy from the inside out.
As American movie comedies have gone from dumber and dumber to just plain brain-dead, the Farrellys and their brand of sweet-and-icky tomfoolery have seemed the best and worst thing to happen to the form. While the likes of Charlie Kaufman and David O. Russell (who has an executive producer credit on "Anchorman") continue to push the genre in exciting directions, mainstream comedies have taken the Farrellys' cue and grown increasingly puerile and sadistic. Even Ben Stiller, who contributes some sweet fluff to this film, has grabbed a piece of this crude "American Pie." In this context Ferrell seems more than just comic relief. He's a reminder that the greatest, deepest laughter doesn't come at the expense of some other guy, but from the glints of self-recognition we get when the screen becomes our mirror.
It's too early to tell if Ferrell will be able to sustain this push-pull between wide-eyed wonderment and looming disenchantment or if he's even interested in keeping that tension going. I hope his inner child doesn't grow up too fast and start listening to death metal. One of the pleasures of the great silent screen comics is how their humor seemed to spring from idealism, from a desire to touch people, not just crack them up. Ferrell will slip on white loafers and curl up with a talking dog to coax our laughter; like the best comics he is fearless when it comes to nailing a joke. But more than any other comic I can think of in movies he imparts childlike delight in life — he hasn't surrendered to cynicism or despair, and if we're lucky he never will.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual humor, language and comic violence
Times guidelines: Mild sexual humor, obviously phony violence against one animal and many people
Will Ferrell...Ron Burgundy
Christina Applegate...Veronica Corningstone
Paul Rudd...Brian Fantana
Steve Carell...Brick Tamland
David Koechner...Champ Kind
DreamWorks Pictures presents an Apatow Production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Adam McKay. Writers Will Ferrell, Adam McKay. Producer Judd Apatow. Director of photography Thomas Ackerman. Production designer Clayton R. Hartley. Editor Brent White. Costume designer Debra McGuire. Music Alex Wurman. Casting Juel Bestrop, Jeanne McCarthy, Blythe Cappello. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
In general release.