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August 2-8, 2006

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Cult Leader

Thick As a Brick: The cult of 'Anchorman'

By Steve Palopoli

I ADMIT I didn't used to be much of a Will Ferrell fan. He had some of the most annoying characters on Saturday Night Live during his time there—the cheerleaders especially drove me nuts. His breakthrough movie appearance in Old School didn't do anything to change my mind.

So I totally avoided Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy when it hit theaters in 2004. Marketed with a terrible poster and worse trailers, it looked like another one of the moronic SNL factory films. And even though it made money, that was more because it was cheaply made than anything else—it never felt like many people I knew were going to see it, and those who did didn't seem to think it was anything special.

Now that I'm a big fan, I understand why. It's a phenomenon even those who love this movie will usually acknowledge: Anchorman is just not that funny the first time. In the classic cult-movie model, it gets funnier with each repeat viewing. I finally rented it off pay-per-view in an L.A. hotel on one of those nights when you feel like you actually want something stupid and pointless. Anchorman seemed like exactly that at the start, but I did laugh out loud a few times, mostly at Steve Carell as weatherman Brick Tamland. There was something satisfyingly absurdist about the whole thing, enough so that the next night when my girlfriend was back I rented it again from the same hotel so she could see it. She laughed about as much as I had the night before, and that time I laughed twice as much. That's how it goes with this movie—later I bought the DVD, and it seemed to get funnier for both of us with each viewing. At a certain point, we hit a level of enjoying it not just for its one-liners but as much for its funhouse-mirror characters—not only Carell as Brick but Ferrell as the '70s TV-news alpha male, Christina Applegate as the ambitious reporter who wants to bring equality to the newsroom but isn't above talking up her "exquisite breasts," Paul Rudd as the reporter who thinks he's God's gift to women and David Koechner as the party-animal sports guy. They're all sort of realistic within the internal logic of the movie, which itself is bizarrely effective as an alternate-reality California of the 1970s. The whole panda-birth-as-epochal-news-story plotline is the kind of social commentary that Monty Python excelled at: ridiculous exaggeration that nonetheless needs no explanation, because we all recognize the truth underlying it.

Though it's based on the same improv ethic as Christopher Guest's ensemble films, Anchorman doesn't get the same credit for its comic craftsmanship as the artier Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. It's not as sophisticated as either of those, but sometimes it's funnier in its unrestrained silliness: the "pants party" exchange, for instance, or the Ron-to-dog conversation. And of course the news crew rumble (and aftermath—"Brick killed a guy!")—that's the best.

There was so much extra improv material on the cutting-room floor after Anchorman that the producers put together a direct-to-video "sequel" called Wake Up, Ron Burgundy that came in the Anchorman box set. I have mixed feelings about the movie; narration was used to stitch together the outtakes into a "new" story, but the sheer amount of footage that's obviously alternate takes from scenes in Anchorman is irritating. However, if you just think about it as a novel way to present bonus footage on a second disc, it's more palpable. There are maybe four scenes that are truly funny—Brick's "breakfast falafel," Champ's extended attempt to woo Ron, a scene in which the news team turns to cannibalism after being lost for five minutes and a bank robbery. That last one is part of the original plot of Anchorman, which involved a revolutionary group out to mess up San Diego's reality. It was scrapped for the existing panda plot, but much of the footage turns up in Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. The bank robbery scene has Amy Poehler as a teller being robbed by Maya Rudolph and associates, with Rudolph's werewolf mask earning her vicious scorn from a not-very-frightened Poehler. The dialogue in this bit is as good as anything in Anchorman, and Rudolph's "I am a ma'am, ma'am!" is so quotable it will haunt your interactions with your friends forever if you let them see it.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your pick for best 'Anchorman' quote here.

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