TV journalists of less than stellar intellect and inexhaustible vanity are nothing new as figures of fun–one need only think back to the classic character Ted Knight played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s–but it’s a sign of the precipitous decline in the intelligence quotient of American comedy that this crude, moronic vehicle for “Saturday Night Live” expatriate Will Ferrell is the new century’s contribution to the mini-genre. MTM’s Ted Baxter earned more laughs in thirty seconds than Ron Burgundy generates in an hour and a half. It’s an even sadder commentary on the state of contemporary standards in cinematic humor to recall that when James L. Brooks, one of the creators of MTM, decided to train his eye on the TV newsroom for the big screen, the result was 1987’s “Broadcast News,” a sly, subtle satire from which “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” couldn’t be further removed. The difference is between high comedy and low farce; this smarmy, silly, witless bit of crassness is about as low as you can get, and what’s really depressing is that it will probably be a big hit.
As befits a vehicle for a former SNL cast member, “Anchorman” is nothing more than an extended, repetitive and decidedly sophomoric sketch in which Burgundy (Ferrell), a totally self-absorbed dolt who’s the number one news readers in San Diego during the 1970s, has his chauvinistic pomposity punctured by the addition of a woman to the all-male team. By presenting it as a period piece the makers obviously hope to feed into the popularity of the “Austin Powers” franchise, while by treating it as a fable of a woman breaking through the glass ceiling (with the ultimate aid of the dullard who becomes romantically involved with her), they’re trying to make it palatable to a female audience as well as the potty-minded males at whom its sexist, gross humor is obviously directed. And they’re likely to succeed.
For those of us who find the picture close to intolerable, there are two big problems with “Anchorman.” The first is that it’s unrelievedly stupid. And the second, very closely related to it, is that it stars Ferrell. The reason that Ted Baxter was so funny is that he was surrounded by smart people, who set off his idiocy and could react to it with a sort of dumbstruck awe. But most of the characters around Ron Burgundy are even dumber than he is. That’s especially true of his male “news team”–Stetson-wearing sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), doofus weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and stud-in-his-own-mind reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd)–who spend most of their time drooling over how horny they are and generally demonstrating their numbskull nature; but even female interloper Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, in a very arch turn) proves none too bright despite her obvious superiority to Burgundy (after all, she does fall for him). To be sure Koechner will get plenty of laughs from the easily amused as an utter dimwit who happily informs us that he has an IQ of 48, but the others are really quite boring–a terrible disappointment in the case of Carell, who’s shown real promise elsewhere. Even old reliable Fred Willard makes little impression as the news director, no Lou Grant figure. The biggest drawback to the picture for many, however, will be Ferrell, who’s doing the same loud, bizarre, abrasive shtick as always; once again he’s like an unleashed id, a boorish 12-year old in the body of a flabby 35-year old, oblivious to anything but his own lust, and all too willing to show off his unattractive body (though happily he doesn’t go quite as far here as he did in “Old School”). A lot of viewers seem taken with his dim-bulb obnoxiousness, but others of us find him more creepy than amusing, and that’s certainly so in this case. There are a score of cameos by the likes of Jack Black, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Vince Vaughan scattered throughout the picture–most notably in a weird “rumble” among rival news teams in the city, which tries to milk laughs from death and dismemberment–but the only one that evokes even a smile, surprisingly enough, is by Tim Robbins, who plays the tousle-haired, pipe-smoking anchor of the PBS squad. Perhaps that’s because he alone radiates a smidgen of adult intelligence in this sea of repetitive frat-boy goofiness. Visually “Anchorman” is as in-your-face as it is humor-wise; it has an overbright, chaotic look that’s as hard on the eye as the picture is on the brain, and Adam McKay’s direction is sloppy and undisciplined.
To be fair, there are a few laughs in “Anchorman.” One involves the (totally surrealistic) treatment of Burgundy’s beloved dog–a moment that’s obviously intended to outdo the famous canine episode in “There’s Something About Mary,” but still worth a chuckle. Another is an easy jab at the Bush administration in the obligatory “where are they now” summing-up at the close (Bill Kurtis gives his professional reputation one more wound by narrating, but at least Larry King doesn’t appear). But for the most part the picture is a coarse, one-joke affair; Ron Burgundy might not have actually been a SNL skit, but “Anchorman” sure feels like a movie based on one.