Partway through the uneven string of skits that comprises Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the film loses its mind completely. Abandoning any pretense to coherence or plot (admittedly, such pretense is thin to begin with), the scene is a strange and silly set piece, in which various San Diego news teams come together in an abandoned lot. Rumble, middle-aged men, rumble.
The fight begins almost accidentally, as ostensible hero Ron (Will Ferrell) and his Channel 4 Evening News team (location reporter Brian Fantana [Paul Rudd], dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers weatherman Brick Tamland [Steve Carell], and cowboy-hatted sportscaster Champ Kind [David Koechner]) stumble into a confrontation with their arch-nemeses, the plaid-pantsed “Numero Two” team in San Diego, headed by Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn). Just as the rivals face off by puffing their chests and revealing their weapons (chains, guns, clubs, switchblades, even a hand grenade), the fight is crashed, so to speak, by an assortment of increasingly ludicrous contender: the PBS squad (led by Art-Garfunkel-haired Tim Robbins), a wholly bland team commanded by hapless Frank Vitchard (Luke Wilson), and the Spanish-language team, led by mustachioed Ben Stiller. “Rule number one,” all on-air personalities agree, is “No touching of the hair or face.”
The throwdown is as obnoxious as anything else in Anchorman, but its gracelessness is zinged up with a certain energy, as the warriors in pathetic polyester—most of whom you’ll never see again—- produce an array of exotic weapons and lay each other out. Bodies fall, sirens sound, the guys scatter like Sharks and Jets. At this point, you’re thinking, the film will pull out some old trick, call this segment a fantasy for one of its imagination-challenged participants, and move on. But no. Ron and his boys appear back at his office, gleefully rehearsing how great it was to take part in a “vicious cockfight,” even if trident-thrower Brick will now have to lay low, since he’ll be wanted for murder.
This bizarre and utterly nonsensical moment underlines the film’s much-repeated point (not that it needs underlining). Namely, the titular character is an egotistical, sexist, self-inflating buffoon, adrift in a text that both critiques and comically celebrates the tendencies of the day (“the time before cable,” or, the 1970s) to presume male superiority and prove it by childish competition. (His antics are accompanied by vintage soundtrack cuts, from Bill Withers’ “Use Me” to Bread’s “If” to Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone.”) Embodying such unabashed self-regard, Ferrell is once again (as he has demonstrated in Elf and, especially, Old School) fearless, if exhausting. Whether going shirtless to “pump up” or playing “yazz flute” (that’s jazz flute) for a smoky nightclub audience, everything with this guy is full-throttle. (That goes double for his promotional efforts: he’s appeared everywhere from TRL to Countdown With Keith Olbermann, “in character.” Enough already.)
Beloved by his San Diego viewership for some 12 years, Ron is full of himself, rather like an extreme Ted Baxter. He drinks Scotch and smokes cigarettes on set, performs cannonball dives for his swinging pool party guests, and shares heartfelt conversations with his scruffy little doggie, appropriately named Baxter. “I look good,” Ron tells his reflection, “Hey everyone, come see how good I look.” Contrary to appearances, the man’s self-image is not precisely solid (as indicated when Baxter observes that he is, for all his popularity, “lonely”), and it is soon threatened by the arrival of a woman reporter, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, playing straight person). Brought in by news producer Ed (Fred Willard) to increase the team’s “diversity,” Veronica is immediately sent to cover cat fashion shows and report on recipes.
“Here we go again,” Veronica says in her brief and incongruous moment of voiceover, as she endures the girly assignments and her smarmy, ass-grabbing colleagues (“She is a saucy mama,” exults Champ). That her perspective is so oddly limited suggests that some other voiceover was cut, or her drop-in here is a fluke, like so much else in the film. Cast as the seeming straight person in the movie, Veronica/Applegate has her work cut out for her. The guys fall all over themselves in their efforts to out-gross-out one another, to show just how insipidly piggish and absolutely offensive they can be.
She is Ron is struck by her “classic blond” perfection, such that when his boys announce their intentions to take their runs at her, he blusters and protests: “She has feelings too!” Flabbergasted, the buddies call him out as a “schoolboy bitch,” at which point Ron grinds back into macho-geek gear. This fools the team, but now you now know that he really is a nice guy, relatively speaking. He’s also loathsome and pathetic (he’s renowned for reading anything off the teleprompter), and his eventual romance with Veronica is patently absurd—all in the interest of purported comedy. During their first date (accepted after he offers to “squire” her about town, strictly professionally), she’s inexplicably charmed by his skills on the flute and persistently overlooks his outright stupidity, while appreciating his sexual skill: “I’m storming your castle with my steed, milady!”
The upshot is Veronica’s own professional ability. When, one night, Ron is unable to go on the air (this following yet another abuse-the-cute-pooch gag: when oh when will filmmakers get tired of this joke?), she aces her first attempt at news-reading (and increases the newscast’s ratings by two points), she’s reassigned as co-anchor, the first female in the nation. Veronica’s career soars as Ron’s collapses. Sputtering, he cites scientific fact to support his outrage: “You’re just a woman, with a small brain.”
Veronica’s Jessica Savitch-like rise is meteoric and alarming. The guys can’t take it. And neither can the movie, which devolves into a montage of Ron’s descent (including heavy drinking at a bar tended by the apparently endlessly game Danny Trejo). “I have no heart,” he wails, “Because a she-devil stole it!” Well, okay, she’s gone—“Think I’ll spend eternity in the city, / Let the carbon and monoxide choke my thoughts away”—but, worse, Ron’s self-delusion has abandoned him. And the many minutes it takes for his recovery and the film’s finale feel like an eternity.