As the title character of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell, wearing sideburns and a mustache and a series of terrifyingly ugly striped ties, does a variation on his specialty – the completely unjustified egomaniac. It’s the 1970s, and Ron Burgundy is the top-rated anchorman in San Diego. Each night, he looks out at the TV audience with tiny-eyed seriousness, as if his delivery of the local news were the bulwark of civilization. Yet his stentorian tones and myopic gleam of authority are just a lightly packaged version of his off-camera singles-bar swagger.
Ron, a talking stooge, will read whatever is placed in front of him, and he treats his own brain, too, as a kind of TelePrompTer. He’ll spout any inane or lecherous thought that happens to scroll across it. At a party, he walks up to a beautiful blonde and tells her, with a chuckle of fake modesty, that he’s ”kind of a big deal,” and then he tries to pick her up with the line ”I wanna be on you.” Ron is a homegrown Austin Powers. He’s blind entitlement wrapped around a core of utter dimness.
He is also, for some reason, less than a laugh riot. Ferrell plays this walking piece of idiot-box fluff from the chauvinist ’70s with his standard lack of shame. He lounges around in an open bathrobe, exposing a soft, squishy body covered in polka dots of curly chest hair, and later, when Ron learns that the babe at the party is Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), an ambitious new reporter at his station who would like to shatter the glass ceiling of the anchorman fraternity, he drives her up to his favorite make-out spot and launches into a speech about the name ”San Diego” that makes him sound certifiable. To those, like me, who count themselves as major Will Ferrell fans, everything about Ron would seem to make him a ripe addition to the comic’s pantheon of deluded losers. Except that there’s something a little too innocuous about Ron. As a character, he’s actually quite derivative – Ted Baxter with a touch of Wild and Crazy Guy – and he’s not forceful enough to hold down the center of a movie.
Ferrell cowrote ”Anchorman” with Adam McKay, a former ”Saturday Night Live” head writer who makes his directorial debut here. Their balsa-light satire of the moment when male preeminence in the media, and the workplace in general, was losing its grip (but didn’t quite know it yet) feels like one more movie version of an old TV sketch. I chuckled at the members of Ron’s clueless news team, like Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), the hipster reporter with his odious Sex Panther cologne, or Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), the literal-minded weather dolt. Yet for a comedy set during the formative era of happy-talk news, Anchorman doesn’t do enough to tweak the on-camera phoniness of dum-dum local journalism. The movie is funny when it’s nasty, as when Ron and Veronica trade insults at the anchor desk. Most of the time, though, it’s not nasty enough.