3 out of 5 stars

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is as ubiquitous as a film could aspire to be. With a barrage of quotes from Adam McKay’s movie proliferated throughout meme culture and the internet since its premiere, this satire of a newsroom and its presenters has resonated with millions of people. So why, 20 years after its release, has the film failed to age well?

A lot of the best moments in Anchorman work far better as individual lines in meme templates rather than as funny moments within the film itself. That’s largely down to how little the film cares about its narrative, feeling much more like a sketch comedy show than one that has any interest in telling a compelling story. If Anchorman had tried to contain a more engaging narrative, it would have needed to make some major changes to its structure.

Protagonist Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), a well-known news anchor for a San Diego news station, should have experienced a fall from grace much sooner in the film. This would have made for some entertaining scenes where he’s forced to interact with ordinary people, instead of his buffoonish colleagues and their endless wisecracks about the station’s new hire, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate).

Whilst Ron does eventually stop being so beloved, losing his job and sinking into despair because of it, this occurs so late in the film that one can practically glimpse his redemption arc on the horizon. Anchorman is unwilling to consider what it would be like for a normal person to interact with a figure like Burgundy since that would rid this movie of its defining quality: these characters’ constant burden to outdo whatever the last person said. The ridiculousness of these scenes is continually amped up until they hit a comedic ceiling and plateau, then keep plateauing.

In some ways, Anchorman feels like the grand masterstroke that a series like Saturday Night Live could only hope to pull off if they were to dedicate a huge chunk of their time to crafting a feature-length film. Unfortunately, that would only be impressive because there’s a common understanding of how much that show’s comedy is stretched thin due to the endless waves of sketches its writers have to come up with. Just like with SNL, no one expects witty dialogue when they watch Anchorman for the umpteenth time to experience its iconic one-liners again, but that’s not the point.

A series like The Office (2001-03) perfected the mockumentary format on television, ushering in a new age of comedy in British TV that was so influential it managed to cross the Atlantic and impact American comedy shows. It was willing to grapple with uncomfortable moments, even revelling in them to make these cringe-inducing scenes the show’s bread and butter. Anchorman is too much of a general crowd-pleaser to have succeeded in veering so far in that direction. But it could have either utilised characters behaving realistically to contrast with Ron’s ridiculousness, or it could have leaned further into how it mocks news presenters.

There’s not any parody here, beyond the fact that it’s clear these professionals behave differently to their personas once the cameras are off. This point is so obvious it’s hardly worth considering. Anchorman rarely uses its characters’ professions for entertaining satire, as it’s far more interested in this motley crew uttering increasingly stupid remarks. This style of comedy isn’t inherently bad, but it often relies on rather extreme statements to justify its absurdity. In this sense, Anchorman plays it quite safe.

For instance, in one scene Ron announces to a group of partygoers that he has an important announcement to make. Then he simply performs a cannonball into the pool. Get it? Hilarious, isn’t it? Weren’t your expectations subverted?

It’s worth noting that almost any joke sounds bad if you simply repeat it without elaboration. That said, moments like this might have worked in the early-2000s, but they’ll almost always fall flat today. Put simply, it’s a bland way of disrupting audience expectations, a flaw this movie indulges in regularly. These jokes are akin to a character in a film or series being built up as having leadership potential, only to faint dead away when the moment arrives. A moment like this could be funny, but it’s also so generic that people with little knowledge of comedy could practically write this scene in their sleep.

Some comedies are so stacked full of jokes that it seems they’re trying to shoot themselves in the foot at times. Emma Seligman’s queer comedy Bottoms (2023) comes to mind, for example, or The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) by the Coen brothers. These films are on a frantic search for the next joke, operating with such reckless abandon that it’s as if there’s no time to see if any of them land.

Anchorman isn’t exactly that, since it operates on a more linear and conventional path. If Ron says something ridiculous, one of his co-workers has to outdo one another. And then another co-worker follows suit. And another. Then it’s back to Ron, and back to the rest of his co-workers, and on and on in a constant feedback loop.

The other films I mentioned are fairly messy, almost by definition, but there is something fun about a film that’s happy to hurtle along at a breakneck pace with its rapid-fire jokes. Anchorman does have funny moments (almost all of which are the exact ones you’re thinking of right now, with its quotable lines consistently being the film’s highlights), but it still feels like a sketch comedy format on news anchors that overstays its welcome as a feature film. It doesn’t feel as if we’re building towards anything in this story.

Speaking of which, what’s this plot all about anyway? Does every man in the office want to bang the new girl? It’s difficult to tell at times whether the film is genuinely trying to satirise the negative ways men behave towards women, or if it’s so male-centred that it inadvertently touches on a few of these points in its attempts to convey how creepy and stupid all these anchormen are.

The only real solid indicator either way is a piece of bland voiceover narration from Veronica, where she comments quite seriously on the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated workplace. She’s not the protagonist, so why has she suddenly become the narrator? Why doesn’t she narrate again? More importantly, this scene should have been taken out in favour of something comedic, like her trying to articulate these thoughts to the walking, talking brick walls that are her male colleagues.

Speaking of Veronica, she first appears at a party where she’s crudely propositioned by Ron, with her next appearance being her arrival as the station’s newest hire. This is a perfect opportunity for Ron to experience genuine embarrassment—a trait he generally lacks—when Veronica shows up unannounced. Instead, a poorly thought-out music choice kicks in for no clear reason as we see a blonde white woman exiting a vehicle. Her face is obscured, but her identity is immediately apparent.

Why suck the joy out of this moment by already telling us that this character will appear soon instead of showing it in real-time? If she were to enter the room unannounced, we would feel Ron’s visceral embarrassment, which could easily be mistaken for disgust by his misogynistic colleagues over the station hiring a woman. There would be plenty of laughs to be had in this moment if Anchorman had taken this approach. It would also have been intriguing to see such an undeservedly confident character like Ron feel defensive. Unfortunately, this scene’s potential is squandered for no good reason.

That isn’t to say that this movie is entirely a negative experience. It’s undeniable that it contains many iconic lines, even if they do work better as meme templates. Anchorman is a rare film in that some of its best moments occur in its final half-hour, which is unfortunately very uncommon in comedies. Usually, by this point, the story and characters all run out of steam, but here there are some fun scenes for Ron to redeem himself and reclaim his old job.

Many comedies are irredeemable disasters; Anchorman is far from that. Ron’s colleague Brick (Steve Carrell), although used sparingly, is consistently funny as a dim-witted weatherman, while his other colleagues all have their moments. It’s also gratifying to see Veronica acting rather silly at times, while still being more collected and level-headed than Ron, who would gladly hurl himself down a cliff if it meant he could have the last word.

Considering the heavy improvisation by its actors and the feature-length film’s worth of material left over from Anchorman’s shoot (which eventually became Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie, a compilation of deleted scenes and plotlines), a masterpiece may be buried somewhere within this film. The first draft of the screenplay is also incredibly intriguing, featuring a plane full of news anchors colliding with another plane before both crash-landing in a mountainous area. The news anchors would then be forced to fight off the inhabitants of this second plane—a group of monkeys who were stowed away alongside martial arts equipment. (It’s easy to see now why there were so many fight scenes in Anchorman.)

Regardless of whether or not these changes could have improved this material, while Anchorman does have its moments, overall the film isn’t the uproariously funny classic it’s praised as.

USA | 2004 | 94 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH •  FRENCH •  SPANISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Adam McKay.
writers: Will Ferrell & Adam McKay.
starring: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Fred Willard, Chris Parnell, Kathryn Hahn, Fred Armisen, Vince Vaugh, Danny Trejo, Jack Black, Jerry Minor & Laura Kightlinger.