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Issue Date:  August 13, 2004

From romance to retro

Engaging love in 'Before Sunset'; 'Anchorman' unevenly skewers the '70s


Richard Linklater achieved considerable success with “Before Sunrise” (1995), an unabashedly romantic movie that begins with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American traveling through Europe in 1994, meeting Celine (Julie Delpy), a student from Paris, on a train. They start talking earnestly, get off in Vienna and spend the night exploring the city and making love. In the morning, still under the spell of enchantment, they fail to exchange phone numbers but agree to meet again in exactly six months.

In Before Sunset, it’s the summer of 2003, and Jesse is in Paris promoting his first novel, an account of this nine-year-old adventure -- and guess who shows up as he’s talking to fans at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore? At the beginning they’re nervous with each other. His plane back to the United States leaves at 7:30, and they need to find out why their earlier reunion didn’t take place. Linklater shares screenplay credits with his two stars, which seems completely appropriate as we listen to their hesitations, uncertainties and bursts of energy. They have to protect themselves, not give too much away. When Celine tells Jesse she works for an organization fighting for ecological sanity, he just smiles and says that’s what he would have imagined her doing.

Hawke and Delpy work together beautifully. Relaxed and tense, revealing and concealing, they are utterly believable as contemporary young people. Since Linklater allows the action to unfold slowly, in real time, some may be exasperated by the couple’s apparently lighthearted exchanges as they drink coffee in a pleasant café, walk the winding streets of the Latin Quarter and wander into a nearby garden. Most, however, will feel completely involved, hoping to find out what the two really feel, what their lives have been like and what they will do now.

We know there’s no simple solution for them. Jesse is married and devoted to his young son, and the limo driver is always just off-scene with his bags. Near the end, he confesses he constantly dreams of Celine. She is harder to read: Unhappy, she paints, has written a few songs and says she no longer wants to live with a man. He insists on taking her home to her cluttered Paris apartment and asks her to sing one of her songs; reluctantly but beautifully, she complies. It is about someone met once and lost but never forgotten -- certainly not him, she smiles teasingly. “You’ll miss your plane,” she warns. “I know,” he responds, but we’ll have to wait for the sequel to this implausibly touching romance to be sure about what happens.

Early reviewers, wishing to compliment Linklater on the dialogue, have invoked the name of Eric Rohmer. The latter’s “A Tale of Winter” offers an intriguing basis for comparison. To me, the French director seems surer in his ability to tease his heroines affectionately and would never have had the hero make a novel out of his “great love.” Nevertheless, “Before Sunset” brings a warm glow to drab summer days, and should lead to extended conversations among young couples dreaming of their future.

Anchorman is a mildly satiric look at male chauvinism in the ’70s, as revealed by the salacious and frightened reactions of a San Diego TV news team to the station’s hiring a woman anchor. It reaches too hard for its laughs but sometimes gets them anyway because Will Ferrell is expert at conveying the goofy pretentiousness of its title character, Ron Burgundy. Ron is defined by his self-confident preparations before his program, a standard greeting to his host city as he signs off, a constant leer and his love for his remarkable dog, Baxter. Into his all-male world comes Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), presumably to challenge the sexism of the studio but dressed to encourage propositions from every man in the place.

Veronica’s insistence on professionalism before she agrees to let Ron show her the town weakens dangerously after he plays jazz flute at the nightclub they attend, and they are promptly in bed. Such bonding, however, does not improve the news assignments she receives until Ron has a bizarre traffic accident that leads the victim to throw Baxter the dog into the river. Since Ron doesn’t show up, Veronica gets the chance to read the news, the station’s ratings go up and he is forced to share his star role. A struggle for supremacy ensues, until Ron is fired for closing his program with an obscene insult to San Diego planted on the teleprompter. (He always reads whatever is printed there.)

If the plot seems like a series of uneven sketches from “Saturday Night Live,” this may be because the movie was written and directed by Adam McKay, one of that show’s former head writers. “Anchorman” is good at conveying the vapidity of most local TV news, but when it stages a farcical battle between all the news teams in the city, movie star cameos only betray a sense of desperation. Fortunately, the long-awaited big story of the season -- the birth of a baby panda at the San Diego Zoo -- provides a heartwarming climax that pulls together all the threads of the plot, including Ron’s presumably drowned dog.

The “enlightened” attitude of “Anchorman” is undermined by jokes about homosexuality that would have been dumb even in the 1970s, and the movie depends too exclusively on Will Ferrell for its laughs. His associates on the news team are allowed to be dumb without being funny, and its supposed women’s equality message is fatally undermined by not giving Veronica Corningstone any chance to show possibilities as a comedienne.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes
Spider-Man 2 has become the summer’s biggest hit without my help and can be safely recommended even to those who ordinarily ignore comic book movies. Director Sam Raimi shows confidence and originality, finding rich humor in the downside of being a superhero and making the action sequences subordinate to the narrative. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man goes through an identity crisis, and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Durst), who criticizes him for selfishness earlier in the movie, eventually helps him become a more human superhero.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 2004

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