Anchorman

"I ate a big red candle."

Will Ferrell’s career is now tracking the same course as Adam Sandler’s did in the mid 1990′s. Starting his run as a popular cast member on Saturday Night Live and building a fan base with several supporting roles in movies, he now has the clout and draw to write his own ticket and get the green light to simply run amok in front of the camera. His last two films, Elf and Anchorman, have essentially been one-man shows, built entirely around his bizarre persona, everyone around him waiting with bated breath for him to open his mouth. This is unfortunate, since the movies, and Ferrell’s performances in them, are not nearly as brilliant as what we saw in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me or Zoolander, where the comic had secondary but memorable roles.

The silver lining to all this, aside from the financial success of his efforts, is that Will Ferrell is considerably funnier than Adam Sandler, and that his movies are unlikely to become critical punching bags. Yes, I laughed at Anchorman, even if the laughs were of the hollow, non-starting variety. There’s no denying that Ferrell’s brand of humor is amusing and occasionally quite clever, though the attempts to transplant it whole-hog into a full-length motion picture have thus far failed. I may not be in the fan club, but I won’t begrudge the man his millions.

Trying to pin down what makes his schtick funny is an interesting exercise. His characters are stylized dimwits — not of the violent, vulgar Sandler variety, but the kind who will respond to any situation by unleashing a string of complete nonsense. They are convinced that they are right, and will persist in that delusion indefinitely. When they are rebuked, they are usually oblivious, or else confused. They are also likely to start screaming at any moment.

These descriptions are certainly applicable to Ron Burgundy, the chauvinistic lead newscaster in 1970s San Diego, known for his nightly request for the city to “stay classy.” He will read anything he sees on the teleprompter, which leads to an amusing gag wherein someone accidentally appends a question mark to “I’m Ron Burgundy.” He and his co-anchors are worked up over the arrival of an ambitious female reporter (Christina Applegate) — entirely unheard of in those days, apparently — with dreams of becoming the nation’s first female anchor. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the ladies, but they don’t belong in the newsroom!” insists star reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd). “It’s anchorMAN, not anchorLADY!” screams the sports guy. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE YELLING ABOUT!” replies the weatherman with the 45 IQ (Steve Carell).

That’s very funny, as are many individual bits in Anchorman, but the movie plays more like a series of sketches than a unified whole. The problem, I think, is that since Ferrell’s comedy is so fundamentally and crucially illogical, so dependent on the non sequitur, it is exceedingly difficult to fit him into a storyline. His character doesn’t need to have conventional motivations, and while this is what so often makes him funny, it is also what forces this film into an unwieldy, episodic structure. The SNL credentials of some of the cast and crew are evident, to say the least.

So while there are several belly laughs to be had here, the comedy never takes off. Gags aren’t allowed to develop; the characters are shuffled from location to location and from conflict to conflict without building momentum. There are cameos from big name actors in bizarro roles, including a hysterical Tim Robbins, but they’re symptomatic rather than helpful. Mike Myers and Jay Roach’s Austin Powers series is similar in approach to Anchorman, but it had more patience with its jokes, amusing us with careful construction rather than blitzkrieg.

It’s hard to dislike a movie that contains the line “60% of the time, it works every time,” but Anchorman is too disjointed for me to embrace it as wholeheartedly as I expected to. Will Ferrell is one funny dude, and I hope he continues experimenting with his talents rather than allowing himself to be pigeonholed a la Sandler. This film is an ominous sign.

Note: This is the most heinous example I have ever seen of a movie that no longer contains scenes featured prominently in the trailer. What gives?

-- Eugene Novikov

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