About twenty years ago, comedy movies enjoyed something of a renaissance under Gen Xers like Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips. That class of early-to-mid aughts film makers didn’t produce high art, but they did turn out the movies your stoner friends quoted incessantly. These were the last comedies to feature crafted jokes, but their brief heyday came to an abrupt end when the Woke Cult outlawed fun.
If the surreal aughts stoner comedy had a pinnacle, it was Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Produced by Apatow but directed by Saturday Night Live alum Adam McKay, Anchorman marked the explosion phase in a corporate IP cycle that would spawn a glut of Will Ferrell vehicles with ever-diminishing returns.
Anchorman‘s jokes do hold up, though. But for those who know what to look for, its setting and themes produce unsettling cognitive dissonance.
Explaining the movie’s internal contradictions requires cursory plot analysis, so be aware that we’re heading into spoiler territory. Not that there’s much to spoil, since the movie uses a story structure that is officially called the idiot Plot. Besides, the fun comes from the jokes and dialogue, which I’ll leave aside.
Anchorman takes place in a fictionalized version of San Diego, at an unspecified time in the 1970s. Right away you can tell that Gen Xers made this movie, because every frame is saturated with 70s nostalgia. Nor is this the gritty, seamy vision of Quentin Tarantino. Instead we’re shown a hyper-idealized version of 1970s America with intact families, prevalent Christianity, and an overall coherent and healthy culture. The biggest story Ron and his news team report on is the imminent birth of a panda at the San Diego Zoo, not some racial or energy crisis.
In fact, the worst violence shown in the movie is inflicted by reporters, who cause traffic injuries, beatings, dismemberment, and at least one murder. That’s the movie’s first paradox: On one hand it’s a love letter to journalists that depicts them as they see themselves – crusaders for the truth dedicated to informing the public. On the other hand, Every journalist in the film is vain, shallow, and dumb as a post.
With one key exception, which ties into Anchorman‘s second internal contradiction.
The movie’s opening scene introduces us to Ron Burgundy, the titular anchorman. As the lead anchor of the city’s number one newscast, he’s the king of San Diego. But the movie instantly hits us with a duality. We see that Ron earned the top spot by excelling at this job. He’s a five-time Emmy winner, a consummate entertainer, and a loyal friend to his news team. He also deeply loves his town and shows a genuine interest in keeping its people informed.
But on the flip side, this multi-award-winning broadcasting expert is also a total buffoon. Not only can Ron not do the news without a teleprompter, he will thoughtlessly read anything written on it. He lacks a grade school knowledge of history, not even knowing what his beloved city’s name means, but never hesitates to hold forth on topics he’s clueless about. Somehow, his team is even dumber. The weatherman’s IQ is stated as 48.
The reason that Ron and his all-male news team were written as professionals at the top of their field who are simultaneously blithering idiots wasn’t for comedy’s sake. At least not entirely. Ron would still have been funny as a midwit suffering a bad case of Dunning-Kruger. But the movie needs him and his team to be utter dunces so it can have a story. And that story pushes a definite narrative.
Remember, the 1970s San Diego of Anchorman is portrayed as idyllic, almost utopian. Everyone is happy. Business is booming. The setup works. But it’s male professionals in love with their jobs who make it work, and we can’t have that.
Enter Veronica Corningstone, an ambitious journalist who comes gunning for Ron’s job. Her intrusion on Ron’s perfect world not only upsets the status quo and kicks off the film’s main conflict, it also generates most of the movie’s internal dissonance.
Now, Ron and his team are already number one in their market. Near the beginning of the movie, they even hit a new ratings record in all key demographics. Channel 4 has a winning formula, and messing with it is suicidal from a business perspective. Yet station manager Ed Harken hires Veronica over his ratings-topping, award-winning team’s objections.
Why? His stated reason is the affiliates complaining about a lack of diversity. That rationale makes no sense. On a technical level, because Channel 4 would be a network affiliate, or at most owned and licensed by one of the Big Three. And in character terms, Harken seems perfectly happy with the news team’s performance, so why care what people who don’t watch them think? It’s just technobabble to handwave the just-so plot turn away.
So Veronica comes in and takes the Strong, Independent Woman™ trope to 11. Against all logic, she outperforms every member of the industry-leading news team at their own jobs, outwits their clumsy attempts to drive her off, and even beats Ron in a fight. This is a guy we see winning a knife fight against the 6’5″ Wes Mantooth, yet he gets his ass kicked by a 5’5″ woman. Now, you could argue that the SIW™ cliché is played as a joke. I would argue that’s the only way it can be played.
Just as the news team feared, Veronica lays waste to their paradise – much like another woman who pursued her self-will independent of her man. And Veronica’s a hit. The audience loves her, and she immediately blows away Ron’s ratings. Therein lies more dissonance. If Veronica beat Ron by doing real journalism when he’d just been coasting all along, it implies that Ron was only popular because the audience was too dumb to know what they really wanted. And what they didn’t know they wanted until the movie told them was an omnicompetent careerist feminist.
And while the movie is telling the fictional Channel 4 audience they’re too dumb to know what’s good for them, it’s telling you, the theater and home audience, the same message.
What no one ever asks is why diversity is important enough to detonate the happy, harmonious status quo. The characters don’t ask because the film makers have no answer. “Society is changing, so you’d better go along and like it,” is the best argument the film can make. In so doing, it paints a compelling if unintended picture of the chaos wreaked by diversity.
Since it can’t dig too deep into the implications of its main premise, the movie has to make another just-so turn in act 3. More forced conflict is introduced, which calls on Ron to restore traditional masculine and feminine roles to win. I’ve said before that if you want to know a movie’s message, look at the characters’ winning behavior. And reestablishing Ron’s protector role does save Anchorman from being unalloyed Woke Cult propaganda. But more thematic dissonance creeps in as Ron learns the exact opposite lesson and embraces Veronica as his co-anchor.
In the final analysis, Anchorman is mindless fun that whipsaws between pushing woke narratives and being accidentally based. Watch it if you can get it used and not pay people who hate you.
Originally published here.