Dir. Adam McKay; writ. Will Ferrell & Adam McKay; feat. Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steven Carell, David Koechner (PG-13)
"There was a time," a sonorous voiceover declares, "before cable news." A simpler, shoddier time when the community buffoon could build his own little on-air empire with no credentials other than a sweet poly-blend sport coat and bigger-than-average hair.
It was roughly the era of Starsky and Hutch, and the atmosphere that middling flick worked so hard to capture is evoked effortlessly here; the difference - as is true so often with Will Ferrell - is that you get the feeling the movie is doing this for its own pleasure, with no thought of mocking the '70s for the benefit of smug 21st-century hipsters.
Ferrell plays anchorman Ron Burgundy, whose all-male, fraternity-like news team is thrown into disarray when the station hires a woman who takes her job very seriously. The two fall madly in love, but professional jealousy gets in the way; Will Ferrell with wounded pride is enough to hang a movie on, but Will Ferrell with wounded pride and a Burt Reynolds moustache is a reason to go online and buy advance tickets.
Ferrell co-wrote the screenplay, and it shows. Little surreal explosions pop in the dialogue, juxtapositions of images that, since the laughs they generate are surprise-driven, shouldn't be quoted here. The effect is that, instead of having a goofy rote comedy with a brilliant comedic star, the star's weird wit hangs in the air even when he's not onscreen (which, admittedly, isn't very often).
Anchorman isn't as cohesive as last year's Elf, and there are a number of gags that, if they don't completely fall flat, don't entirely work. A scene in which Burgundy hops onstage at a jazz bar to play flute has its moments but strays into the kind of realism-be-damned territory of the Austin Powers sequels; an animated sequence that stands in for Ferrell and Applegate's first sex scene needed a bit more polish to push it from simply weird to hilarious. And in a movie full of nudge-nudge cameos (dig Vince Vaughn as the leader of a rival news gang), it's surprising how unfunny Jack Black's appearance is.
But the movie boasts giggles throughout and at least a few laughs so big that if you're seeing it with a large crowd you won't hear the next few lines. It may not make you long for the days of bushy sideburns and extra-wide lapels, but it should make it clear that Ferrell has graduated from the ranks of sideman. — John DeFore
Dir. Roger Michell; writ. Hanif Kureishi; feat. Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Cathryn Bradshaw, Peter Vaughan, Steve Mackintosh (R)
Bobby is an affluent and insolvent businessman whose closest relationship is with his cell phone. His sister Paula is a self-absorbed bundle of resentments who blames her mother for her failure at marriage and a writing career. In love with a married carpenter named Darren (Craig), Paula asks May to help persuade the stud to leave his wife for her. Instead, May herself ends up in bed with the much-younger Darren. "I thought that nobody would ever touch me again, apart from the undertaker," she purrs after one of their vigorous encounters.
Though she refuses to allow her life to be summed up as simply "the Mother," and though she ends up literally with a black eye, May is the only sympathetic figure in this painful domestic drama. In its cruel baring of souls and bosoms, The Mother is worthy of an English John Cassavetes. Except for occasional, minimal piano notes, Michell does not allow his soundtrack to distract from the explosions of anger and despair. Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, best known for portraying the lives of South Asian Brits in My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic, focuses this time on middle-class characters whose migraines have nothing to do with migration.
Anne Reid's gutsy portrayal of May, an older woman who finds herself in sexual competition with her own needy daughter, avoids both sentimentality and prurience. At an early point in their troubled and troubling liaison, May and Darren visit the grave of William Hogarth, whose caustic sketches exposed the odious hypocrisy of 18th-century Britain. In The Mother, Hogarth's searing spirit lives again. — Steven G. Kellman