"Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," the new Will Ferrell comedy, is a scream. It has the thrill of brilliant improv, made all the more thrilling by the freedom to edit out the bits that don't work. Especially toward the end, the laughter in the screening I saw was pretty close to nonstop.
The setting is a San Diego television station in the 1970s. Suave and vacuous Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), with his window-pane-plaid blazers and color-coordinated turtlenecks, is the number-one anchorman in town. His fellow news guys are cool to only a slightly lesser extent: Brian Fantana, the incredibly smug field reporter (Paul Rudd); tightly wound weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell); and sports bonehead Champ Kind (David Koechner). These guys love being secondary-market TV stars and C-list hipsters, and they love being guys — smoking and drinking in the studio and partying famously all over town. In a feminist formulation of the time, they're all pigs.
The Channel 4 news team hasn't heard about feminism yet, but it's coming. One day, a new hire named Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) walks in the door, determined to be an anchor...person herself. The news guys are horrified. "It's anchorman, not anchor lady," Champ blubbers, appalled at the prospect of having a woman on-staff. "I heard their periods attract bears!" Of course, there could be an upside to Veronica's arrival. As Brian Fantana puts it, "I'll give this little cookie an hour before we're doin' the no-pants dance." (He has reason to be confident about this: He's drenched himself in a nostril-puckering cologne called Sex Panther — "made with bits of real panther.")
Veronica knows she has to come on tough in this wanker wasteland. (Out for a drink with Ron, she tells the waiter, "I'll take a Manhattan, and kick the vermouth to the side with a steel-toed boot.") But she still gets shunted to the side at first, assigned to cover some stupid cat show while Ron is soaking up glory on the big story of the week, about a pregnant panda at the local zoo. (The irony of the Veronica character, of course, is that for all of her fiery ambition, what she aspires to do is simply to cover the same sort of local-TV crap that Ron does.)
Out strutting around town, Ron and his buddies butt heads with a lower-rated rival news team anchored by the hysterically bitter Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughan). There's also a hot-headed Spanish-language outfit on the prowl (headed by Ben Stiller), and a pipe-smoking PBS drone played by Tim Robbins (who tells Veronica, "We at public television, we're really into the women's lib thing"). The scene in which all four of these factions come together is one of the funniest things I've seen in a movie this year.
Oddly, though, the funniest lines in "Ron Burgundy" are uttered, not by Will Ferrell, but by a dog and a bear. In subtitles, of course; but yes, a dog and a bear. You just have to see it. I'm pretty sure you will.
* * *
Documentary filmmakers set out to show us "reality" of one kind or another, but how "real" can anything be when there's a camera crew shuffling around and a sound guy stretching a wobbly boom mike out over the action? Would whatever happens have happened — or would it have happened the same way — if the filmmakers hadn't been around to record it?
Well, no, obviously not. But "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, feels real anyway. Whatever manicured kind of reality the bandmembers might have started out wanting to propagate — if indeed they did — was clearly overwhelmed by the elemental emotional rift within the group, and the stifled resentment that has finally boiled over within two of its founding members, guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich.
With the release of their first album, in 1983, Metallica rewrote the tired rules of heavy metal music, bringing new power, speed and instrumental intricacy to the form. By the time "Some Kind of Monster" picks them up, in 2001, the bandmembers have become very rich. They own ranches and collect expensive paintings. They drive cool cars. They send their kids to ballet classes. Their lives are what a lot of people would call pretty good.
But the band is falling apart. Metallica haven't released a studio album in three years. The members haven't worked together in nine months. Their lawsuit against Napster, the file-sharing service that has enabled free downloading of their music, has enraged fans and made Ulrich, as he admits, "the most hated man in rock and roll." Hetfield isn't fond of him, either: He resents Ulrich's controlling personality, and — as the group finally starts work on a new album — he's starting to complain that Ulrich's drumming has gotten too fancy. ("I'm used to havin' the drummer do the beat part," he says.) And guitarist Kirk Hammett, the sunniest of the bunch, is unsettled to hear from Ulrich, a bit later on, that the mighty metal guitar solo is maybe "a little outdated."
Clearly, this level of animosity is not a passing thing. To deal with it, the group accepts a suggestion that it actually bring in a therapist — a "performance-enhancement coach" — to help the group work out its tangled psychodramas. When bassist Jason Newsted got wind of this plan, he says in a separate interview, he was blunt: "I actually said that I think that this is really f---ing lame." Then, after 15 years with the group, he quit to work full time with his side band, Echobrain.
The therapist, an alarmingly mild-mannered man named Phil Towle, says things like, "We are the co-producers of the process slipping off the planet," and immediately you think: Uh-oh. But then, as we watch, we see that Towle's group sessions are starting to go somewhere — they're dredging up gobs of acrimony that have never been sifted through before. This sounds like a therapy cartoon; but from what we see, it appears to be working, even with a film crew on hand shooting it all. Then Hetfield suddenly checks into alcohol rehab (the band had long been known to fans as "Alcoholica"), and he stays there for many months.
When he returns, Hetfield is a considerably different person. "It's a total rebirth for me," he says. His priorities have changed radically. In order to spend more time working on his tattered marriage, he insists on recording only four hours a day. And he's unsure about touring; the thought of it scares him. Ulrich is flabbergasted by this new development. "I don't understand who you are," he screams at Hetfield. "I realize now that I barely knew you before."
"I'm not enjoying being in the room with you playing," Hetfield says. "Well," Ulrich responds, "if you're not happy playing music with me ..." — and he jerks his thumb sideways in the international gesture for "take a hike."
Is all of this some sick kind of emotional grandstanding — a pathetic bid for attention by an old-and-in-the-way band of metal millionaires? (When new bassist Robert Trujillo joins the group, they give him a $1 million cash advance up front.)
Maybe. Surely there's something disturbingly narcissistic about people willing to open their lives to such intimate public scrutiny. But the real pain that flares up throughout "Some Kind of Monster" blows away whatever poses may have been planned — especially in a scene in which early guitarist Dave Mustaine, who was fired from the band in 1983, contemplates the alcohol-soaked wreckage of his own life, and the enormous ration of fame and fortune he missed out on. In the fan annals of Metallica, he's the all-time loser, and on the verge of tears he tells Ulrich, "People hate me because of you."
"Some Kind of Monster" is a very unusual film; it may be fated to occupy a sad little category all its own for some time to come. The picture has quite a bit of music in it — studio jams, vintage concert clips — but it's not a "rock movie" in any standard sense. That's not to say it won't rock you, though.
* * *
Stripping the King Arthur story of its magical trappings — the wizard Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, the enchanted sword Excalibur — doesn't leave you with here's-what-really-happened history; it leaves you with shadows and mist. When did Arthur live? Did he ever even exist? No one knows. Setting off in search of the "real" King Arthur is like poking around a dark alley in search of the real Mickey Mouse.
The legend, as it's been built up like barnacles over the past thousand years or so, is pretty much all there is to Arthur, and it's enough, really: Director John Boorman fashioned it into the 1981 fever-dream classic, "Excalibur." But screenwriter David Franzoni (who worked on the script for Ridley Scott's "Gladiator") and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), having possibly noted a renewed vogue for castles-and-kings movies in the wake of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, have come up with a perversely hobbled take on the familiar legend: Hack away all the fun and romance and return Arthur to the Dark Ages — the 5th Century, to be exact — when a warrior who may or may not have been him may or may not have lived. Possibly.
The result is the excitingly titled "King Arthur," directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"). In this version, Arthur (Clive Owen) is a half-Roman soldier born and stationed in Roman-occupied Britain and charged, along with his knights (Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, etc.), with fighting the barbarian Saxons, who are invading from the north. The Saxons are really bad guys. Their leader, Cerdic — who for some reason speaks in exactly the sort of half-strangled rasp last heard emanating from Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" — says things like "Burn every village, kill everybody," and, with Arthur in mind, "Finally, a man worth killing."
Merlin is on hand, too — although in this telling, he's only a rebel chieftain of an indigenous tribe, the ticked-off Picts. (One character mumbles in passing that he's also "a dark magician, some say," but there's none of that mythical Merlin funny business going on. Which after a short while you feel is really too bad.)
And then there's Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Guinevere has really been reinvented here. With her woo-hoo war paint and barely there battle top, she seems modeled less on the classy noblewoman of legend than on Xena the Warrior Princess (who showed a little less skin, actually). Guinevere isn't much of a romantic. ("What tomorrow brings, we cannot know," she actually tells Arthur, before taking his hand and placing it on her thigh.) But she's a good vixen to have around in a fight, capable of wading into a field full of burly boyos hacking one another up with their swords and whatnot, and laying waste to several herself before walking away with what appears to be little more than a nick on the forehead. (I wondered how Arthur felt about letting her touch his thigh.)
"King Arthur" strongly recalls at least two other movies set in legendary times, each one a superior saga. One is obvious: The swarming battle scenes, with their occasional hulking, Uruk-hai-like combatants, recall the more vivid imagery of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. (As does the music: A wordless vocal plaint of the hauntingly Celtic variety that floats through "King Arthur" is provided by Moya Brennan, leader of the Irish traditional band Clannad; Brennan's sister, Enya, won an Oscar nomination for her similar contribution to "The Fellowship of the Ring.") And when Arthur on horseback shouts of freedom to his fighters, and when they huddle under a canopy of upraised shields as a hail of enemy arrows falls from the sky, it's "Braveheart" that leaps immediately to mind.
Unfortunately, there's no one in "King Arthur" with anything like the charisma of Mel Gibson or Viggo Mortensen. Clive Owen, a quiet, compelling actor, holds his own as Arthur, but he seems glummed-out by the film's cold, wet milieu. (This movie is not a come-hither commercial for Ireland, where it was shot.) And while Ray Winstone, playing a skinhead knight named Bors as if he were Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, adds a certain anachronistic zest to the proceedings, the rest of the cast is colorless and generally hard to care about.
I've skimped on plot here, because quite a lot of it seemed to me as murky as the drifts of manufactured fog that go floating through every other scene. I'm pretty sure I could figure it all out if I went back and watched the movie one more time. But I don't think I'll be doing that.