I’m working in reverse chronological order through a huge backlog of reviews I’ve meant to write but never got around to, for basically all the movies I’ve seen since this spring.
In today’s installment, I analyze a comedy to such a degree that it can’t possibly be funny any more, if it ever was. Numerous jokes are spoiled in the process.
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004)
Directed by: Adam McKay
I came across an anecdote about Will Farrell recently. Farrell, a member of the Los Angeles based comedy group The Groundlings (a west coast answer to Second City, one might say) before he became pretty much the star castmember of Saturday Night Live for the last three years of his run, apparently had a very normal and happy childhood. This goes against the grain of most people who end up as professional comics, who often have rotten upbringings, and learn to use comedy as a shield as well as an offensive weapon. Addressing this, his fellow castmember Chris Kattan gawped at him one day, and said, “I don’t get it. How are you funny?”
That’s a good question: How is Will Farrell funny? One trait he has that I’ve long recognized as crucial for comedians is that he is absolutely fearless. He’ll go as far as he needs to to get the laugh. At some point, he recognized that his slightly squishy, un-buff, hairy white guy body was a funny thing to show too much of. In dozens of SNL skits, he struts out nearly naked, getting squeals of displeasure from the audience that ripple into laughs. A gag in all of the trailers for the lame SNL-based comedy, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, features him making catcalls at women on a beach while clad only in a tiny speedo. I don’t really find this that funny, but I recognize that it works for a lot of people. It works on me sometimes.
One thing Farrell has that I like is a talent for bombastic exclamations, which I believe he can generate on the fly in endless variations. (Getting ahead of myself, the closing credits of ANCHORMAN show serial outtakes where Farrell makes a different exclamation “By the beard of Odin! That smarts!” “Great Knights of Columbus! That really stings!”, and so on.) His famous line from his last movie, the surprise hit ELF, has him screeching at a department store Santa Claus, “YOU SIT ON A THRONE OF *LIES*!”, a line not in the script. As I just noted, ANCHORMAN features a lot of this, maybe a little too much; perhaps, unfortunately, someone brought it to Farrell’s attention that he was good at this kind of thing, so he wrote himself too many opportunities to go for it.
Anyway, I find Farrell sometimes funny, sometimes not. He has a schtick, and there are times when I can get myself in the right mindset to appreciate it, and have a few laughs. I went into ANCHORMAN in a positive spirit, wanting to be entertained, rather than fighting the groove. Alas, I did not get as many laughs as I was hoping for. I’ve heard from at least one other person that they found this movie to be a laugh riot, so maybe I failed to get into the mindset after all.
Mainly, what threw me was the inconsistency of it. In retrospect, this seems like a strange charge to lob at a movie like this. It is basically a sketch movie with one main character in all of the sketches, written by two sketch comedy writers (Farrell and Adam McKay, the director, who also used to be on the writing staff at SNL) and starring various sketch comedy actors. This means, I think, that they sat around and generated about four hours of material (I know there was a lot of extra material, because quite a lot of the jokes they show in the trailers and ads aren’t even in the movie), then whittled it down to what they thought was the best set, along with some scenes that kept a semblance of plot running through the movie. Oh, and a big climax scene where everything gets wrapped up; this climax showed to me how truly weak the writing was when compared to people who genuinely are good at the craft and art of screenwriting. Maybe Farrell and McKay can write good sketches, but they still haven’t learned how to write a proper movie.
I mentioned inconsistency. At some point in film school, I took a class called Film Aesthetics, in which the professor made the point that you can do whatever you want within the world of a movie you’re making, but once you set up the rules of that world, you have to stick to them. There is another sketch comedy movie that comes to mind that, to me, really holds up as a movie as well, and that is AIRPLANE! (1979). AIRPLANE has a range of different kinds of gags, but once it sets up the basic logic behind most of the gags, it stays within those crazy bounds for the entire movie. And although the comedy is absurd, the gags are logical: one type of gag is the metaphor-taken-too-literally, if you know what I mean. “The shit’s gonna hit the fan!” Another involves setting up a pattern, and then expanding it to the Nth version of the series, until it reaches an outrageous extreme, but it stays consistent. E.g., the sequence where they start slapping a woman who’s becoming hysterical, and the camera pans past a line that has formed for people to continue to whale on her. By the end of the line, we see people armed with bats and morningstars and pistols. That kind of thing.
ANCHORMAN, though, didn’t keep consistent with itself, in my opinion. (Others may disagree, or just not be bothered by the inconsistency.) At one level, it’s supposed to be a satire of 1970s mores; however, it never quite settles on which year of the 1970s it’s satirizing. It seemed to me like a story set in the 1970s by people who were too young to remember what the 70s were actually like, so it’s a mix of half-remembered childhood stuff and things learned later on, with a few of the caricatured-70s pop nostalgia bits thrown in. Farrell’s character, Ron Burgundy, is in some ways supposed to be a laughable relic of the time, with his odd clothes, big hair and mustache, his habit of smoking and drinking liquor just off camera, and so forth. But sometimes the people within the movie react to him like he’s really absurd and alien, and sometimes they react to him like he’s as normal as the next guy, since they’re all living in the 70s. Do you see what I mean?
There’s a running gag that’s set up where Burgundy comes home to his empty bachelor pad and talks to his pet dog. The usual talking-to-your-pet kind of talk becomes an involved conversation, with Burgundy responding to “woof!” with “You know I don’t speak Spanish!” So, is he very imaginative or just insane? It’s hard to tell what they’re going for (besides, I guess, the audience going “ha ha ha”), especially when, by the end of the movie, the dog reveals himself to actually be a talking dog, given subtitles so that we in the audience can understand him. So if we’re in a world where animals are intelligent enough to talk, and people can understand the language of dogs, then this is kind of fantasy world, and not just a satire about a bygone era when anchormen smoked on camera and wore polyester suits. Or are we?
The movie got weirder for me when it introduced the subplot of rival gangs from other local news stations. The main one is led by Vince Vaughn. This other news team kind of hangs out waiting to bully Burgundy and his compatriots as they walk home from school — er, I mean, work. Or I’m not sure where they’re walking, but all of these scenes are handled like they’re all elementary school kids who have settled into elementary school gang cliques. One time, Vaughn and company come riding up on bicycles to menace Burgundy and his friends. It seemed deliberately trying to call to mind elementary school bullying. I wondered what the deal was with that. Sometimes I see comedies that are sophomoric or adolescent or juvenile, but this was in betwen juvenile and infantile. However, it seemed to me like Farrell is about the right age to have been in elementary school around the year the movie is supposed to be set, and maybe that has something to do with it. It’s really a mixed bag. In some ways, it was fascinating to try to suss out how the writers had come up with the material. Did they try to remember the year 1971, and it reminded them of being bullied on the way home from school, so that went into the script? Hmmm.
ANCHORMAN features a guy I find very funny, Steve Carell, formerly of The Daily Show, who managed to steal the show from Jim Carrey in BRUCE ALMIGHTY. In this movie, he plays a guy named Brick. His first line in the movie shows him putting mayonnaise into a toaster and telling the camera that he has an IQ of 40, or something like that. Basically mentally retarded, I guess, or a moron in the classical sense, Brick is the weatherman for the station, a job that he has just enough intelligence to handle. In all of his scenes, I winced more than laughed at Carell’s performance. It’s almost like, out of context, everything he did was potentially really funny, but in the context of each scene, it all kind of fell flat. What it looked like to me was that he was making everyone on the set nearly die laughing every time he did a take, but out here in the audience, trying to watch what I thought was supposed to be a movie, I wasn’t laughing like I should have been. This is hard to describe. I was sitting there watching him thinking, “I can see that he’s being very funny, but I’m not laughing.”
All of these things I’ve just been mentioning — Carell’s performance, the stuff with the rival news gangs, and the inconsistency of the movie’s world — come together in one joke and its after-joke. There is a big, hm, I guess Fonzie would call it a “rumble”, where not just Vaughn’s gang, but four others (from the other local affiliates, the PBS station, and the Hispanic station) also show up, armed with gang warfare weapons. Then there’s a crazy battle scene, which, AIRPLANE-like, suddenly has absurd things thrown into the montage: Brick is shown to be brandishing a trident, which he hurls at another guy. Okay, trident from nowhere, that’s kind of funny just because it’s random and absurd.
After the fight, we cut to a scene back in Burgundy’s office where the guys are saying, “Wow, that was some fight.” Then someone actually mentions that Brick was somehow wielding a trident at one point. So now it’s not just an absurdity for the audience to deal with, it is apparently a real thing within the world of the movie — and it’s weird to the other characters there, too. Now it’s not just a trident from nowhere as a throwaway gag, it’s a trident whose appearance kind of needs to be explained, where it didn’t before. The scene continues: Brick talks about the guy he threw the trident at, and says he thinks he killed that guy. Burgundy says yeah, he thinks Brick might have to lay low for a while, or go across the border to Mexico, or something. Wait, so now it’s not just a slapstick moment of a guy being hit by a trident, it’s an actual murder with consequences that are talked about (albeit comically)? But then, after this, Brick’s status as a trident-hurling murderer is never mentioned again.
I can see why this is supposed to be funny (it’s funny that we’re exploring the consequences of a throwaway gag, inverting your expectations! ha ha!), and I need to explain that it’s the inconsistency of the movie world that I have a problem with, not the humor of the joke itself per se. Going back to the slapping-the-woman scene of AIRPLANE that I mentioned earlier, if it had been like ANCHORMAN, there would have been a shot following that of someone saying, “Hey, how did you manage to get those weapons past security onto the plane?” Is that really going to make the joke funnier?
I’m totally ignoring the main “plot” of the movie, which is about how a woman (Christina Applegate) is hired as a co-anchor, sort of starts a romance with Burgundy, then despises him as he reveals himself to be thoroughly sexist and jealous. It’s beyond these writers to make this kind of thing actually interesting and funny on its own, and instead it’s just highly cliched and contrived, as they force these two characters to get along, then not get along, then get along again, because that’s the plot formula they’re following. Decades ago, this was a high art form in movies. Not that it was ever easy to achieve, but my gosh, do you have to miss by that gigantic a margin? Let’s raise our standards a little higher, please.
One thing I will give it credit for, and I think this comes from Farrell himself: the movie is not the least bit mean-spirited. It is good-spirited, and I vastly prefer that to mean-spirited, negative comedy, which dominated for a while there in the 1990s. However, I think that with better writing, ANCHORMAN could potentially have been three or four times as funny, along with being smart (smart-at-being-dumb, even, if you want that), truthful, acid, and arch. Instead, it’s just kind of funny and mostly kind of dumb; an okay bunch of sketches, it frankly stinks as a movie.
VIEWED ON: 9 July 2004