Wow, did I want to like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. At least as much as I enjoyed Dodgeball. And in fact, I did like Anchorman, but I didn't love it. Certainly not as much as Will Ferrell's last film, the new holiday classic -- at least as far as I'm concerned -- Elf. I know it's received some pretty weak reviews, and I've read a couple of bloggers who apparently hated it. I don't think it's quite that bad either. Basically, what you get with Anchorman is a relatively mediocre film featuring a mostly great cast and some precious cameos with about 4 or 5 huge bellylaughs, a couple smaller chuckles and a bunch of huge comedic thuds.
Even though Ferrell's Ron Burgundy does not stem directly from one of his Saturday Night Live characters, Anchorman is an SNL movie. Co-writer and director Adam McKay is a former SNL head writer, and as is the case with much of the talent that comes from this late-night TV institution, the sketch comedy influence is prevalent through his writing and directing style. The 70s retro shtick of Anchorman is funny here and there, but it's not enough to carry the whole movie. And the best moments of the film have less to do with the haircuts and suits and more with some wonderfully absurd situations which Ferrell pulls off perfectly.
But McKay's direction feels much more like a bunch of similarly themed sketches tied together with flimsy storytelling than one cohesive comedy. It's obvious that in writing the script, Ferrell and McKay thought up plenty of, "Wouldn't it be funny if …" moments, and even the basic storyline – Ron's love affair with Veronica Corningstone and her infiltrating the male-only tradition of news teams – works sometimes. But too often the film sputters after a huge guffaw into a succession of relatively boring sequences or repetitive and not always funny jokiness.
One major weakness is Christina Applegate as Veronica, the straight-woman, love interest and foil to Ferrell's Burgundy. Applegate was great for years as the dimwitted Kelly Bundy on Married … With Children, but here she's simply over her comedic head. She can't pull off the serious yet absurd dialog that is Ferrell's specialty, and her professional indignation throughout the first part of the film – when news director Fred Willard will only give her cat fashion show stories – looks like bad high school theater. She's supposed to be a barrier-busting Jessica Savitch type, but instead she's just an energy drain on most of her scenes. They needed to cast an actress (blonde I suppose) with the comic chops to match Ferrell, Willard and the rest of the cast. I can only imagine how much better this film might have been with someone like Reese Witherspoon or, maybe even better and far less expensive, Amy Poehler playing Veronica
Another, albeit smaller, problem with the film is McKay's inability to reign in Ferrell's performance. This is a problem that Jim Carrey's films often suffer from. Carrey gets so wild and out there and his directors exhibit no control that at times he simply leaves the movie and instead of watching Ace Ventura, you're watching Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura. It's a subtle difference in consciousness, but it's always affected my enjoyment (or lack of) his movies. When directors control Carrey's antics, he can be brilliant AND funny. And I don't mean stopping what he does, but rather just not letting it take over everything we're watching. Ferrell isn't quite as wild as Carrey, but his brand of comedy and various personas are often so absurd and unrealistic that he can go over-the-top. A better director (for example, Jon Favreau with Elf) will manage to always integrate Ferrell into the tone and rhythm of the overall film. McKay fails to do so in Anchorman.
Dodgeball and Anchorman are different types of comedies, but they're similar enough for comparison sake. Dodgeball is a bit more gross-out comedy with ridiculous situations, whereas Anchorman is simply absurdist comedy within an even less realistic setting. But while Dodgeball manages to set-up its story causing chuckles at the beginning that gradually build into bigger and bigger laughs, never letting the audience settle too long into simple storytelling and/or shtick, Anchorman doesn't have its timing down to the same degree.
What really saves Anchorman are the majority of the supporting players. Willard is simply one of the funniest comedic character actors ever, and he doesn't disappoint here. Paul Rudd and David Koechner as two more members of Ferrell's news team are also strong, but the star player there is Steve Carell as dimwitted weatherman Brick Tamland. Making the case that the position of weatherman was always stupid even before it attracted the likes of dumb sexy blondes or Jillian Barberie, Carell's deadpan delivery is hysterical with every line he utters. Carell was a brilliant "reporter" on The Daily Show, and he'll play the lead in NBC's upcoming (and probably unfortunate) Americanized version of the great BBC comedy series The Office.
As reported all over the place, there are also a bunch of pretty funny cameos from the current crop of cool comedy actors, most of which seemed to cause great surprise, amusement and happiness among the audience watching the 10:30 PM screening on Friday at the Loews on 84th Street with me.
Anchorman is worth seeing for its better moments, and anyone who is a Ferrell fan should at least be satisfied with seeing him mostly do what he does best for 100 minutes or so. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the cast deserve a better overall movie, as does the audience.