Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is everything we expect in a comedy except funny. Oh, there are some funny moments. How could there not be with the filmmakers throwing everything at the wall to see what shticks? But too many of the gags fall short, and this has a cumulative effect, damping our enthusiasm. Worse, Will Ferrell doesn't seem totally committed to his character, the heroically coiffed Ron Burgundy, who, when he isn't making love to the TelePrompTer, is hitting on every woman who passes within his viewing area. Ferrell, who specializes in guys of grandiloquent stupidity, should have hit this thing out of the park. Instead, he seems to be checking his swing, waiting for a better pitch. There's a long, honored history of vaingloriously hilarious newscasters, from Ted Baxter to Jon Stewart, and Ferrell may have wanted to avoid striking the same old notes. But he's come up with no interesting new notes of his own. Ron Burgundy is, in more ways than one, yesterday's news.
That's what you get when you set a comedy in the '70s, that much-maligned decade. (Are the '80s and '90s spoof-proof?) While wallowing in the clothes that, if only because they were made of synthetic fibers, will last forever, Anchorman zeroes in on the era's sexual politics, which pitted women's libbers against the newly ordained male chauvinist pigs. When the movie opens, Burgundy and the rest of San Diego's Channel 4 News Team are a veritable Spur Posse, racking up numbers that leave little time for keeping up on current events. Then Christina Applegate's Veronica Corningstone shows up, shuffling papers like a future co-anchor, and suddenly there's trouble in paradise. "I read somewhere that their periods attract bears," says Steve Carell's Brick Tamland, the dimwitted weatherman, and that pretty much sums up the reaction to having a woman added to what's heretofore been a man's world. Only Ron feels a stirring in his loins that may in fact be something resembling love.
Then again, it may be the same old self-love that has guided Ron through the rest of his life and career. Ferrell's at his best when he's floating through scenes on a narcissistic cloud, admiring himself reflected in others' eyes, but the movie keeps bringing Burgundy back down to earth, humanizing him. And Applegate's never allowed to leave the ground in the first place. Why couldn't Veronica be as wackily ambitious as Ron is wackily complacent? Why does Applegate, a first-rate comedian, have to play the straight woman? Anchorman is all over the map when it comes to the kinds of jokes it tells. There's even a takeoff on Gangs of New York involving rival news teams, which has an Airplane! air, if not Airplane!'s flair. But the movie might benefit from a sharper focus, a sharper bite. Admittedly, a guy like Ron Burgundy is a barn-sized target already pockmarked with bullet holes. But surely Ferrell, who co-wrote the script with fellow "Saturday Night Live" alum Adam McKay (who also directed), could come up with more than this. Instead of "If it bleeds, it leads," we get "If it breeds, it leads."