San Diego, the mid-'70s, and Ron Burgundy is the star of Channel 4's local news team. Burgundy (Will Ferrell) presides over hee-hawing sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), dim-bulb weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and sleazy field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd). It's a boozy, brawling boy's club that's about to be seriously re-arranged when a newly hired comely and ambitious female newscaster, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), sets her sights on the anchor's chair.
This send-up of local news refracted through the prism of the 1970s and its public battles of the sexes was scripted by Ferrell and his former SNL writing partner Adam McKay, who also makes his directorial debut. Making fun of local news is sport millions engage in daily, and it shouldn't look like such hard work as it does in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
I expect a bit of hit-or-miss humor with these sorts of comedies, but unfortunately, Anchorman is burdened with jokes that just don't work -- a barking dog that only Burgundy can understand and worn-out smirks at cheesy '70s clothing. Ferrell and McKay repeatedly go for overkill: Weathermen are inherently funny -- why make Anchorman's weatherman a pencil-eating village idiot? Other jokes start out lively, but get killed in delivery: Burgundy's white-guy flute-jazz solo is a perfect sort of '70s male moment, but the film beats the sly gag into unfunny mush by going for pedestrian slapstick. Midway through this film, it's as if you can feel the failed jokes puddling up around your ankles.
One big flaw is that the Burgundy character is never clearly defined -- sometimes he's a self-absorbed go-getter and lothario; other times he's portrayed as an idiotic thumb-sucking loser. Scenes designed to establish Burgundy's untouchable popularity, such as a biker bar that goes reverentially silent for his nightly newscast, are too ridiculous to be clarifying. With Burgundy's character so badly outlined, there's little hope for sharper satire.
Then there's the explanatory voice-over (from an unidentified documentary-style third party) that comes and goes, which means that Anchorman ends up being one of those messy hybrids between slapstick, parody and mockumentary. It also invests heavily in stunt casting, though the welcome appearance of A-list comic actors who have recently been in much funnier movies just made me realize more keenly how much this film was flailing about.
Ferrell is a likable actor who isn't afraid to be the butt of his own jokes, and he can be a scream (his freak-outs in last year's Old School were gut-busters). But here, a one-joke idea stretched too wide, and a film helmed by a first-timer who hasn't gained much experience pacing comedy, serve only to make Ferrell look embarrassingly unfunny.