It's all very promising, but even a talented cast can't do much with the lazy script that Ferrell and former "Saturday Night Live" writer Adam McKay have cooked up in a fit of self-indulgence. They've pinned their comedic hopes on the ludicrous setting and on Ferrell's bankable appeal, but what emerges is only sporadically entertaining. "Anchorman" is three times the length of a local news broadcast, and if you're in a generous mood, you'll find it only roughly three times as funny.
Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, a Scotch-swilling San Diego broadcaster and ladies man whose way of life conjures up images of the Rat Pack in its death throes. He's happily oblivious to his shortcomings, in part because he's managed to establish himself as the alpha male in a small gang of preening, sexist newsroom nitwits. Their seedy paradise is breached when the ambitious Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) shows up as the station's first woman reporter. Hardly the embodiment of upright feminism, Veronica recognizes Burgundy for the empty-headed blowhard he is, but she falls for him anyway, without for a moment forgetting that what she wants most of all is his job.
To say that all of this amounts to a plot is to overstate the case. Burgundy and Corningstone's rivalrous romance serves merely as a pretext for a series of loosely related skits, only a few of which would be deemed memorable if they appeared on TV. The good bits, such as Burgundy's unexpected burst of virtuoso jazz flute playing, elicited an occasional chuckle in the audience I was with, which for the most part maintained a silence one might expect at a production of "Medea." But if we want to judge "Anchorman" by its own standards, we can observe that nothing in the movie lives up to, say, Toonces the driving cat.
Like the amiable "Old School," whose cast is partly reassembled here (Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson pop up now and then), "Anchorman" is at its best when at its most disarmingly vulgar. In their first blush of passion, Burgundy and Corningstone are suddenly thrust into a campy, animated landscape, all flowers and clouds and sunbursts, and when a kitschy rainbow pops into view, Corningstone chirpily asks to be bedded on it (though not quite in those words). Often, however, the script is disappointingly tame.
Intermittent smirks are provided by the supporting cast. Paul Rudd ("Clueless") plays a self-appointed newsroom Casanova, all sideburns and lapels, who's got a medicine cabinet full of musk and pet names for the favorite parts of his anatomy. Steve Carell of "The Daily Show" occasionally scores as a childlike weatherman who looks like a refugee from the Nixon White House and speaks with the cogency of Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man." It's harmless enough, but the movie contents itself with test-marketed wackiness that finally becomes insipid, and, like television news itself, leaves you hungry for something with more bite. **1/2 S
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