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You may have heard there's a good romantic comedy out with a Saturday Night Live alum playing a news anchor. There is. It's called Broadcast News with early SNL filmmaker Albert Brooks, and it's available at most video stores. If you haven't seen it, you should. Alternatively, there's a current theatrical release with SNL vet Will Ferrell called Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy about which I'm rather less enthusiastic. If urged to venture out to this brain-dead dud, consider spraining your ankle instead.

Directed by Adam McKay and co-written by Ferrell and McKay, Anchorman is set in 1977 San Diego and tells the story of its titular character (Ferrell), his city's top-rated newscaster and most recognized personality. McKay gets the look right. The costumes are convincing, and Burgundy's big hair and mustache will recall Tom Selleck's look from the era.

The film also accurately captures the celebrity status local TV anchors can achieve, a phenomenon that persists, of course, but one that probably reached its zenith in the '70s before cable television began to dilute network dominance. I don't know how commonly romance flares between co-anchors, but it will certainly ring a bell with New Orleanians who recall the relationship between local news superstars Garland Robinette and Angela Hill. Aside from these attributes, however, Anchorman gets almost everything else wrong, including history. Here a female anchor is a sensation, but female newscasters were commonplace by 1977.

I have no doubt that TV news has seen its share of airhead news readers. Ted Knight's Ted Baxter character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn't spring into being with no basis whatsoever. But Ron Burgundy makes Ted Baxter look like Albert Einstein. Burgundy is as full of himself as Baxter always was, but he's far stupider. Burgundy is a man who has never heard the expression, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," and even after it's been explained to him can't comprehend what it means. Burgundy is so inarticulate, his idea of a slick pick-up line is "I want to be Š on you." Seems to me the filmmakers could have made far more comedic hay parodying a character's arrogance, vanity and insensitivity than drawing so often from the well of dumb. As it is, we haven't a clue why co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) would find Burgundy romantically alluring for even a fleeting second.

I will concede that Anchorman generates a few laughs (very few), but most of those are throwaway gags from the natively funny Steve Carell who plays weatherman Brick Tamland, a character even stupider than Burgundy. The picture wastes the talents of Paul Rudd, who plays ace reporter Brian Fantana, a character who achieves the odiousness for which he's designed without ever delivering a single moment of humor. The great Fred Willard, used so skillfully by Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, shows up as news producer Ed Harken but is denied any opportunity for the spacey, tangential disconnection which is his forte. And though Applegate is a game and very capable actress, she's been saddled with a character that makes no sense. I like that she plays straight and avoids the shameless mugging that Ferrell and Rudd resort to, but by refusing to play either dumb, dizzy or dazed, she's left seeming utterly contradictory.

Whereas Broadcast News finds genuine comedy in the aspirations and interaction of real human characters, Anchorman produces frightfully little comedy in the nonsense activities of characters who have to stretch to reach the two dimensions of a cartoon. Silly farces can produce a lot of laughs, however. The Airplane movies did, and so did the Naked Gun series. Instructively, the Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker team responsible for both once told me that they thought plot was the critical element in their comedies' successes. Jokes were built around plot, not vice versa, and a joke that would disrupt plot was abandoned. From what I can tell, Ferrell and McKay have proceeded from the opposite premise. They employ the old plot formula of boy chases girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, etc., but whole set pieces have nothing whatsoever to do with their through story.

In one segment, Jack Black cameos as a berserk motorcyclist only to deliver a predictable moment stolen whole cloth from There's Something About Mary. In another, the news teams from all three network stations plus broadcasters from PBS and a Spanish-language station gather in an alley to do battle as in Gangs of New York. Since this passage is peopled with cameos from Tim Robbins, Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, it's supposed to play as the movie's highlight even though it's unrelated to the plot. Disastrously, these scenes play as smug and self-congratulatory, off-putting and exclusionary rather than fun and embracing. This isn't often true, but if I hadn't had a job to do, I would have left looooong before the end.

click to enlarge Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) tries to woo co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
  • Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) tries to woo co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
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