That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #19: Go fuck yourself, San Diego.

Posted by kozemp on November 2, 2012

Anchorman is a movie that completely blindsided me.

I saw it at the AMC Warrington 24, which is pretty dreadful these days, as multiplexes go. My friend Matthew, who I saw it with there, may remember better than I do, but I have a feeling it was the last movie we (and I) saw there. To say that it was not our first choice is putting it lightly. I enjoyed Will Ferrell’s antics on SNL enough, I suppose, and had heard broadly good things about it, but I think the actual reason we ended up choosing Anchorman was because we were bored, and there was nothing else playing we hadn’t seen, and shit, you gotta do SOMETHING on a Tuesday night in August.

I chortled a little bit at the opening scenes, but when Ron said “my apartment has many leather-bound volumes and smells of rich mahogany” I almost fell out of my seat laughing and spent the rest of the movie fighting to stay in it.

The trouble with a lot of “stupid” comedies – and I’m not even counting shit like Scary Movie 1-27, I mean things like Pauly Shore or Rob Schneider or any Adam Sandler movie other than Billy Madison – is twofold. The first thing is their immediate association of “funny” with “lowest common denominator.” And, yeah, don’t get me wrong, the lowest common denominator can be funny, but when every scene and every bit is a race to the bottom, as things go on you’re going to find that the bottom is getting unreasonably crowded and your only resort is to grab a shovel and create a deeper bottom. This is not how you make a good movie. This is how you make a Tuesday on the Opie and Anthony show. It is not a desirable state of affairs.

The other problem with most stupid comedies is that they’re not really comedies. They’re a collection of jokes. This is why, though it is quite often very, very funny, Family Guy is a terrible television show. Because it’s not a show. It’s a collection of funny non-sequiturs. This is a trap that some movies fall into as well – not necessarily the aforementioned race to the bottom, though that does happen, but movies that will sell out on plot and character and believability and narrative to get as many laughs as they possibly can. This sort of thing is rampant in bad Jim Carrey movies, where everyone is so intent on just wringing as many laughs as the audience as they possibly can that it doesn’t matter if the jokes, or even the scenes, make any sense in the context of the rest of the movie. And again, while funny, things like this are still not good movies.

Anchorman avoids both of these traps, and does so in a pretty remarkable way.

One way it does so is that for everything else in the movie, the comedy is rooted in character.

Think about it. It’s true.

In a lesser comedy, things just happen, and they’re funny because wacky non-sequiturs are, for the most part, funny. In Anchorman all the hilarious, amazingly funny moments happen because of the characters in them, and because though they are PLAYED quite broadly the characters themselves are also very sharp and very well-defined.

The important plot driver of the film is when Jack Black – in a scene that I still laugh at until I can’t breathe – punts Baxter off a bridge. In another movie that scene would just happen, and it would be funny because a man kicking a dog off a bridge is, let’s be honest, pretty funny. (For me personally, I also laugh at the comically-bad prop dog in that shot, which strikes me as a sort of meta in-joke in and of itself.) In a lesser movie it would just happen. Jack Black would show up, there would be a flimsy pretense of interaction, he would kick the dog, next scene.

But this movie is smarter. It’s better. The scene happens – and blows up in an explosion of comedy gold – not because of the situation but because of character. Everything in the scene happens because of Ron’s bizarre combination of narcissism, stupidity, and naivete, all of which are already established. Plot actually proceeds FROM characters, instead of being a thing that happens AROUND characters. (And when Stephen King says “plot is stupid,” it is the latter that he is referring to.)

It’s vaguely ironic that a movie about such stupid, stupid people so strongly avoids the idiot plot. (Here defined as when a character suddenly behaves stupidly or absurdly out of character solely to achieve a plot point. Every time you watch a movie and say, “wait a minute, why the fuck did he just do that?” you have been subjected to an idiot plot.) Because, let’s not kid ourselves, the Channel 4 news team and their pals are, every single one of them, profoundly stupid people. But they’re profoundly stupid people who are all trying to be better – well, maybe not Brick – and in addition to all the character-based comedy, that aspirational note allows the movie to avoid any kind of snarky or ironic vibe.

The other way is that instead of racing itself to the bottom, it almost seems like the people in Anchorman are racing each other to the top. Now, I don’t mean that they are trying to constantly one-up each other in terms of the opposite of the lowest common denominator, making more and more obscure literary references a la Aaron Sorkin – this exact thing, more than any other, is what really killed Studio 60 – but in terms of making the comedy more and more complex. The Sorkin thing, yeah, this movie is not remotely trying to do that.

Almost any idiot can tell a joke. (Note I didn’t say ANY idiot.) Almost anyone can be taught a sequence of words that, when said properly, are funny. It’s hard, really absurdly hard, to spontaneously BE funny, let alone what the people in this movie do, which is essentially construct giant joke Jengas on the fly while staying true to their characters and the world the movie takes place in, which (in another huge surprise) is as finely drawn as Jackson’s Middle Earth. Watching the scenes you can almost see them trying to top each other and spin more elaborate comedy webs for the other people in the scene to try and get out of. The cologne bit is a classic example of this. Each statement is more outlandish and ridiculous than the last, but they make sense, and they’re in character, and somehow they WORK, and it just builds and builds until you get to “60% of the time” and the entire scene goes off like a bomb.

And the movie does that over and over and over again. It’s sick how good everyone in this is at this absurd comedy high-wire act.

The only time the movie violates its own logic, unfortunately, is at the very end, when Baxter saves the day. Not that the actual idea of the scene is bad – thinking about it now, I’m actually pretty sure that the idea of Baxter saving the news team from the bears is pretty goddamn funny – but the way it plays out in the movie, with the subtitles and everything… I dunno. It seems to me like somebody had the idea of “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if Baxter talked to the bears” and two other people said yeah, that’s funny (because it is) and then once it was there nobody had the heart to take it out.

But, you know what, even that’s okay, because I still laugh my ass off at it.

JLK

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