After 1998's A Night At The Roxbury, Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Ferrell seemed headed for mid-table obscurity: more Rob Schneider than Adam Sandler, the go-to man for hilarious cameos but too, well, ungainly for lead roles. Yet with Old School and Elf, this lanky clown has shown not only good instincts for material but also a broad comedic sensibility that harkens back to the best of Mel Brooks' players. And in Anchorman Ferrell does his best work yet, creating an instantly quotable, riotous signature character that'll have thousands of mimics repeating his numerous catchphrases.
Much of the film's charm comes from the way Ferrell completely sells being Ron Burgundy, never once winking at the audience or letting his moustachioed façade slip. His is a lurid alternate universe where the elaborately coiffed, hedonistic mannequins who read the news are treated like TV gladiators, battling for ratings with a near-fanatical zeal. Whenever Burgundy encounters rival talking-head Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn), the tension escalates enough to threaten wholesale carnage as outsized and ridiculous as everything else in the film.
Director and co-writer Adam McKay seems to have learned a lesson from the Airplane! movies, rarely letting his camera linger on a gag and ensuring his movie clocks in at a lean, clean 91 minutes. Even at this smart pace, though, he struggles to contain his star, who's so pumped with comic energy he almost bounces off the walls. (Check out his inspired jazz flute solo, or the scene where he mourns his late pet dog.)
Every bulletin has a few weak links, though, and Anchorman has two. As Ron's female competition, Christina Applegate is too often left looking like a punch-drunk boxer as she vainly tries to keep up with Ferrell. And in a film overloaded with comic sidekicks, David Koechner's oafish sportscaster feels like one too many.
Luckily Ferrell is more than capable of carrying the film, save for a syrupy climax that doesn't gel with the anarchic nonsense that precedes it. But it's a minor aberration in an otherwise entertaining vehicle that fits its star's talents as snugly as one of Ron's polyester suits.
Will Ferrell scores big with a small-screen icon who's crying out for a sequel. Anchorman gives him his best role to date.