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Reconsidering “Anchorman”

Reconsidering “Anchorman” (photo)

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As I walked into 92YTribeca for a special screening and panel discussion of the 2004 film “Anchorman” last night, I asked one of the panelists, my friend and IFC News contributor R. Emmet Sweeney, if I was in the right place to complain about how “Anchorman” is a terrible, overrated film. I was making a joke: I’d assumed that if you took the trouble to schlep to a theater and paid $12 for a movie you could rent for less in any video store or watch on basic cable for free, you were probably a big fan. I’d anticipated “‘Anchorman’ Reconsidered” to turn into a love fest for the film and its creators, director and co-writer Adam McKay and star and co-writer Will Ferrell.

Boy, was I wrong.

To my great shock, this was the place where people came to complain that “Anchorman” is a terrible, overrated film. That’s not to say that the film was without its defenders. Four out of the five critics on the panel were all staunch pro-McKay/Ferrell advocates, and they all made thoughtful comments about why “Anchorman” is such a special film. But they were frequently overshadowed by the fifth and most vocal panelist, senior editor at The New York Observer Christian Lorentzen. Lorentzen, who described himself as full-time literary critic who dabbles in film criticism, was brought to provide the counterpoint to the panel’s four “Anchor”-fans — O‘s Jessica Winter, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scott Foundas, FilmInFocus.com’s Nick Dawson, and Sweeney — and he fulfilled his job smashingly.

His assessment of the film was swift and merciless. “It feels to me like another string in the line of ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumni pictures. It’s surprising that they never got around to making ‘Weekend Update: The Movie’ until they got to this movie,” Lorentzen said. He also bashed “Anchorman” producer Judd Apatow (“It just goes to [his] default genitalia fascination. It’s not offensive to me at all, it’s just boring.”). And he rejected McKay and Apatow’s improvisational style as “insufficient.” At one point, he worried that “this reliance on improv [might] signify a sort of giving up on writing and giving up on scripts that are able to zing in the way that scripts in the ’40s, or whenever you might point to as the golden age of highly written comedy did.” It’s not terribly shocking that a literary critic isn’t a huge fan of comedy that doesn’t rely on the writing process. But who cares about technique if the results are funny?

Lorentzen’s comments weren’t inappropriate or unexpected — after all, he was introduced as the guy who would be arguing against the film — but I was surprised to see how many people in the audience seemed to agree with him. The woman sitting directly in front of me took great pride in announcing that she’d loved “Anchorman” when it came out in 2004, but had since come to realize that it “wasn’t funny.” The woman next to her wondered if “Anchorman” had been bad for American comedy because it had inspired so many knockoffs, even from its own creators. Another audience member faulted the film’s inability to blend comedy with true drama. This despite the fact that he’d watched it, in his estimation, fifty or sixty times.

Personally, I’ve always believed that if a movie compels you to watch it several dozen times, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “truly dramatic” or not. There’s got to be something valuable in there, right? As I watched “Anchorman” at 92YTribeca for what was probably my fifteenth time, I remain convinced that it is the funniest comedy of the last decade. Naysayers be damned, it is a masterpiece.

Obviously, these things are subjective. And I’ll confess: the first time I watched “Anchorman” I didn’t really get it. But like the other gentlemen who was inexorably drawn to it again and again, I found myself watching it whenever it came on television, handing the DVD off to friends, quoting it with anyone who knew Papa Burgundy. I became a fan almost without realizing it. “Anchorman” is seductive; winning you over with its charmingly Neanderthal vision of the 1970s, feisty battle of the sexes, and deranged dream logic.

Lorentzen repeatedly cited the newscaster rumble as the worst part of the film, because it’s a needless and pointless scene with no connection to the rest of the movie.

I love this sequence for the exact same reason. It’s needless and pointless and wild and mad and ludicrous (it does also take the film’s critique of excessive machismo to its wildest extreme). McKay and Ferrell will follow their comic impulses wherever they lead, and their moves hum with a sense of anarchic freedom that is absent from other mainstream comedies. As their contemporaries have retreated to formula, regurgitating meet cutes and false breakups and quirky diner conversations, McKay and Ferrell have remained delightfully unpredictable; their last film, the underrated “The Other Guys” featured arguably the best rug-pulling shock death scene in any movie since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” It was certainly the funniest.

One of the real pleasures of the night was the fact that 92YTribeca didn’t simply screen the stellar new “Anchorman” Blu-ray and instead projected a well-travelled 35mm print of the film. That also meant they screened the original theatrical cut, and after years of watching the “Unrated, Uncut, & Uncalled For” edition on DVD, it was like watching the movie again for the first time. Considering the differences between the two cuts, it occurred to me that in addition to all his other strengths, McKay is one of the savviest directors when it comes to making movies in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. You can watch his movies again and again, because he designed them to be appreciated in all their different incarnations. On most discs, deleted scenes are special features filler; you might watch them once, if at all. They were deleted for a reason. On Adam McKay films, the deleted scenes are essential viewing. This is especially true of “Anchorman,” which had so many deleted scenes, McKay cut them together into a second feature called “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy” that is better and funnier than most Hollywood comedies released this year. On McKay’s films, nothing goes to waste. He eats the whole buffalo, cinematically speaking.

Of course the movie isn’t a rich dramatic experience (it does smell like rich mahogany though). The movie is literally laughing at the idea of movies as rich, dramatic experiences. If you read about McKay, his history in Chicago co-founding the Uprights Citizens Brigade as a bomb-throwing improv and performance art troupe, you see that he’s a guy who loves deconstruct; he even took credit for naming the improv game “The Deconstruction” on a recent episode of the WTF Podcast. He loves to mess with preconceived notions of how a movie should look, and sound, and behave. Which is why McKay should remain in the Hollywood studio system despite the protests from some at the 92YTribeca last night who believe he needs to make a tiny Robert Altman-style indie. Would you ask James Bond to quit spying on the Russians and so he could do anti-Communist activism at a small non-profit organization? We need McKay, modern Hollywood’s cleverest saboteur, right where he is.

Lorentzen wasn’t buying that either. “It’s a different and higher ambition to make art for a smaller audience that’s truer to certain values,” he said before asking “Does [“Anchorman”] really elevate anything beyond “Airplane!” or “Caddyshack” or “Wayne’s World?” At last, we agreed on something. No, “Anchorman” doesn’t do anything beyond stand comparison to maybe the three funniest comedies of the last thirty years. Being one of the funniest movies of our lifetime isn’t enough? As Brick Tamland said, I don’t know what we’re yelling about.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…