The full title of this film, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, is a sly reference to the documentary Pornstar: The Legend of Ron Jeremy and might indicate a subtle referential humor on the filmmakers' part. But that's about as inside as the jokes get. This film is more invested in making you laugh at flat-out absurdism than clever irony, and more often than not, it succeeds.
Anchorman launches us into the world of '70s broadcast journalism with local San Diego anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) as the poster boy for men behaving badly. His supporting anchors introduce themselves by breaking the fourth wall with all the casual gusto of their on-air personas. There's good-ol'-boy Champ Kind (David Koechner) with sports, ladies' man Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) in the field, and dumb-as-a-Brick Tamland (Steven Carell) on weather. They revel in their boys' club with gleeful ignorance of terms like "sexual harassment" until new reporter Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) enters the fray. Improbably, Ron and Veronica hit it off until a series of events puts her in the co-anchor seat and professional jealousy rips them apart, sending Ron on a downward spiral.
All of this is a mere skeleton on which screenwriters Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (who also directs) hang a series of increasingly absurd set pieces that highlight the star's ability to play the most ridiculous situations with the earnestness of a Shakespearean thespian. On his first date with Veronica, Ron breaks into a jazz flute solo. In an otherwise normal scene, Ron and his news team burst into song. Why? Because it's funnier that way.
And that really seems to be the film's motto... not a bad one for a comedy. As a result, it forgoes any semblance of a plot or social commentary, but it was never interested in that in the first place. In fact, the film's weakest moments are when it tries to act like a normal movie. These dead spots simply become waiting rooms for the next completely-out-of-nowhere sight gag or comically mystifying bit of dialogue.
The film is at its strongest when it simply lets loose, taking a gag past the next level to a place that may actually have nothing to do with where a given joke started. A scene that begins as a cute take-off on West Side Story quickly escalates into what can only be described as Battle of the Network Cameos.
A lot of the film's best moments come from McKay's willingness to let the actors find the funniest detours in any scene. Ferrell, an experienced improvisational comedian, does wonders here, but it's Carell, as something akin to an adult Ralph Wiggum, who ably steals every frame he's in.
The rest of the cast does its best to match up, though Applegate sometimes seems out of her league and Vince Vaughn (as a rival news anchor with the priceless moniker Wes Mantooth) is largely wasted. The cameos are numerous, but are more impressive for who they are than what they actually do with their screen time. A notable exception is Luke Wilson, who has a pretty funny running gag throughout the film.
Anchorman shows a Will Ferrell who's not as cuddly as he was in Elf or even Old School, but instead is allowed to explore the farthest reaches of where his sense of humor will take a fairly mediocre plot. The results may not be coherent, or even consistent, but they are often hilarious.
Splashdown in two... one...