Potent as a character actor, impressive if fatiguing as a lead, Will Ferrell possesses a comic gift that’s linguistic as much as physical: The ursine clown’s thunderstruck oaths in Anchorman (which he co-wrote) include “By the beard of Zeus!” and “Oh, great Odin’s raven!” His ability to articulate unpredictable, even mystifying word series—and scream them when he has to—almost compensates for the film’s ostensible function as extended ’70s homage. If this year’s Starsky & Hutch did not exhaust your affection for the era’s fashion oddities, Anchorman will, as it pursues a more nebulous slice of visual culture: that “time before cable,” when “only men were allowed to read the news.”
Ron Burgundy is a popular San Diego newsman whose source of strength is also his Achilles’ heel: He’ll read anything on the prompter in smooth, convincing tones. Ferrell fleshes him out with a penchant for jazz flute, an intermittent and subtly, ludicrously aristocratic accent, and the ability to talk to his dog. Brick-dumb (the expression “When in Rome” perplexes him) yet aping sophistication (he at times calls his city “San Di-ah-go”), he’s not heartless. When ambitious Veronica Corningstone (a restrained Christina Applegate) joins the news team, he maintains some decorum while his boys’-club colleagues razz and grope. (He offers to “squire her about town.”) The humor quotient of sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner), “your reporter in the field” Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) doesn’t extend beyond their names and period-perfect outfits; unable to match Ferrell’s energy level, they can’t quite figure out how to complement it. (But maybe such acting is impossible: Even Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn, cameoing here, pretty much dropped out of Old School halfway through.)
Ron wins, then loses Veronica; the battle of the sexes goes into overdrive as she replaces him as lead anchor. Some sprightly set pieces—an a cappella “Afternoon Delight,” a very funny Gangs of New York interlude—divert while suggesting desperation. As parody, it’s toothless and often smug, but as random Ferrellspeak generator, it has its delights. Who else would think that the new trend of jogging might possibly be pronounced “yogging”?