I keep hearing Will Ferrell being likened to such classic comedians as the Marx Brothers — and I can’t help but wonder if the people who are saying such things aren’t seeing different movies than I am.
However, when people wax ecstatic that his latest offering, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, is like “watching Ferrell do 90 minutes of improv,” I have to conclude that his target audience is not looking for the same thing in a movie that I am. But then I am not a huge admirer of Ferrell’s brand of humor anyway, the pleasant surprise of Elf to one side (though that film had as much to do with Jon Favreau’s savvy direction and its supporting cast). A little Ferrell goes a very long way if you’re not in tune with his sense of humor, and he works better in smaller doses (think Zoolander).
Anchorman is not without its laughs. But in all honesty, most of those are tangential to what passes for the film’s plot, and they have little or nothing to do with Ferrell being onscreen. His character, Ron Burgundy, isn’t much more than a one-note variant on Ted Baxter from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show — an egotistical buffoon of a newscaster who’s even more stupid than the puff pieces he reports. The only difference is that Burgundy is more sexualized and given more bad habits (mostly smoking and drinking).
He’s also more obnoxious, with Anchorman‘s offensive quotient seriously goosed by the fact that Ron Burgundy is never a real character; he’s always Will Ferrell playing at being Ron Burgundy. There’s this undercurrent of Ferrell winking at the viewer, as if to say, “Can you believe what a jerk this guy is?” — as if Ferrell’s afraid we won’t realize that he’s actually smarter than the character he’s playing. Little attempts at humanizing Burgundy fall flatter than your proverbial pancake, because 30 seconds later, Ferrell is back to cartoonish caricature.
Anchorman itself is more like a series of undercooked TV skits that have been stitched together than it is a real film. The plot is almost nonexistent: Ron Burgundy’s “perfect” world falls to pieces when his San Diego TV station hires a woman newscaster, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), from (of all places) a station in Asheville. The gag, you see, is that this is 1978 — a ’78 where people say improbable things like “Bring it on” — and the idea of a woman newscaster is just unthinkable. But even granting this historically suspicious premise, it’s curious as to why Asheville is apparently more forward-thinking than California.
With a nudge from the oldest plot contrivance on the books, it’s not long before Ron and Veronica are an item — something that lasts until the plot requires her to have to deliver the news one evening when Ron misses a broadcast. Of course, she’s a sensation, and Ron suddenly finds himself saddled with a co-anchor. It then becomes — yawn — a battle of the sexes. Thus we wait with impatience for the reappearance of a carefully carried out plot device — that Ron is so dumb he’ll read anything that shows up on the teleprompter.
I’m sure that such hi-jinks happen in real life. (I even witnessed it once with an Orlando, Fla., TV broadcast, when a particularly inept and smug newscaster found his microphone mysteriously left on after a newsbreak. And while the picture went back to the movie being shown, the sound was that of him swearing up a storm as he was corrected over several blunders he’d made. Strangely, he never appeared on a live broadcast again.) It’s an OK device, but it’s so laboriously set up that the payoff is too weak to be funny.
There’s a possible temptation to read Anchorman as a bold experiment that all but eschews any attempts at narrative and reality — and I won’t deny that I spent a lot of time muttering, “What the hell?”. But to do so is to see a conscious creative decision where what really exists is a combination of sloppiness and a conceited assurance that anything Ferrell does is so screamingly funny that nothing else matters.
Above all, the film is yet another of those guest-bit-laden efforts where the head comedian drags in as many of his cronies as he can. It’s an old idea, dating back to at least Crosby and Hope, where it was generally just a momentary gag that played off our knowledge of some supposed rivalry. These days it’s gotten a little out of control, and the effect seems less for the viewer’s amusement than it is for those making the movie. Anchorman affords guest spots for Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson, Missy Pyle and, of all people, Tim Robbins. Why? I have no idea, except in the minds of Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay, there is apparently no dividing line between a three-minute skit and a feature film. This drives what little cohesion Anchorman actually has even further out the window.
At the same time, the gang fight with various news-anchor TV factions in an alley is one of the funnier — and stranger — things in the film. Odder still is the complete lack of even a pretense of reality. In the aforementioned scene, mentally challenged weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell, Bruce Almighty) kills a rival news-team member with a trident (don’t ask). Later, Burgundy suggests that Brick go into hiding for this, but nothing ever comes of it. The simple truth is that that skit’s dead, so move on to the next vaguely related bit of business and forget about what’s already done with.
Too bad that Ferrell and McKay didn’t notice that the funniest thing in the movie is a running gag where station owner Ed Harken (Fred Willard, who’s funnier than the rest of the cast anyway) keeps getting phone calls concerning the latest atrocity committed by his son at school.
If only the film had any kind of coherent structure, it might have actually been good rather than just fitfully amusing for all but hardcore Ferrell fans.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke