Feel My Pain
Cast: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Steve Carell
Director: Adam McKay
I wish things were different. I wish I could go back to the blasé innocence of just those few days past. But alas, I can’t. I’m stuck with this uncomfortable reality that will eat away at my very soul. For the truth is….my love for Will Ferrell has been tarnished. That’s right, tarnished. For all his large, awkward yet cuddly cuteness in Elf, for all his bravura streaking in Old School, he cannot save Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Not only that – yes, it gets worse – he is more than a mere victim in this fall from grace, he is a participant. A direct, willing participant. The pain is numbing.
Anchorman has, at its core, a funny series of premises. A lampooning of stereotypical seventies macho, complete with bad hair, bad clothes and bad taste. A lambasting of local news programs with their bad hair, bad clothes, bad taste and bad reporting. A clever dissection of sexism through the use of silliness and caricature. Each and every one a noble goal, each and every one a potential rabbit-hole in which to fall and break an ankle. Oh, the humanity. For into that hole goes our intrepid anchor, the be-moustached Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) – each and every time.
But we need to go back, back to the beginning, where all good stories begin. Ron Burgundy is a local news anchor in San Diego in the early seventies. Not just any anchor is Ron, he is the anchor. Billboards, ratings, women, they’re all his. His classic sign off – “Stay classy” – is the envy of all other anchors. He walks the walk, in polyester suits. He talks the talk, with a pseudo intellectual prosody that belies a factual knowledge base approximately as large as that of the average newt. He’s THE MAN, in a world of men, where testosterone (or its synthetic equivalent – cologne) reigns supreme. The Channel 4 News Team has it all. Ron is the large, hairy shining star, providing warmth for his satellites, which consist of Champ Kind (David Koechner), the man’s man, on sports, Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), the woman’s man, on the street, and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), the idiot’s man, on weather. What a team, what a time, what a shame.
Our story revolves around Ron and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), the woman who enters into this lair of the man, usurping his glory and capturing his “heart”. Using a device that can be described only as a poor man’s “VH1 – Where Are They Now?” type documentary voice-over narration, we learn of the glory that was Ron and his eventual unhinging in the face of a changing world that simply doesn’t appreciate his faux-brilliance anymore. Yes, a tale filled with woe, sideburns and intentionally bad acting.
“So”, you wonder, “how could this film be anything other than completely captivating, uproariously funny and even a tad touching?” Unfortunately, it is simply too much of a good thing. As well as too much of several stupid and inane things. Ron himself is funny. His look, his practiced overenunciation, his dimwitted overconfidence – all quite charming for awhile. His relationship with his “team”, also funny for awhile. Even his halogen bright flaming romance is funny, off and on. The rabbit-hole appears when all these things try and work together in one movie. For every hilarious bit (a beautiful a capella, harmonized version of “Afternoon Delight” as sung by the Channel 4 News Team) there’s a misstep (the thoroughly unfunny initial meeting between Ron and Veronica). Usually that misstep is in taking each joke just a touch too far, until it isn’t very funny any more. Anchorman is like a Saturday Night Live sketch – it simply doesn’t know when to leave a joke be, too often killing it with repetition. A sequence with Fantana and a particularly pungent cologne is funny at first, but it goes on too long, becomes too exaggerated and loses a chunk of its charm in the process. The same is true of the Brick Tamland character, who is a one-note joke repeated time and again. Dumb as a box of rocks, Brick just utters complete nonsense over and over. After awhile (“awhile” here being defined as approximately four minutes) he isn’t funny. He has the occasional goofy sight gag, but his dialogue becomes actively painful. This is a particularly egregious blunder considering the formidable comic talents of Carell, a former Daily Show correspondent who deserves better material than this character. He makes the best of it, but there simply isn’t enough substance to this guy to let Carell loose. He’s wasted talent here, a tragedy indeed.
It isn’t all bad, though, it really isn’t. There are some truly priceless comic moments in Anchorman, but you have to be willing to put up with the detritus/filler/dumb stuff to get to them. A series of cameos provides one of the films shining moments in the form of a “rumble” between several competing news teams. The ridiculous and silly excess with which this is staged and filmed is a thing of beauty, and the aftermath conversation among the News Team members genuinely funny. Ron’s reaction to the fate of his little dog, the jazz flute sequence, the conversation between anchors as the credits roll, all these things are delightful. Delightful in a perverse kind of way, but delightful nonetheless.
The acting is a little hit or miss. Ferrell makes a perfect strutting, over-emoting Ron Burgundy, but stretches it out too far. While I freely admit that subtlety is not the man’s strong point, his previous foray into “carrying a film” – Elf – brought with it a kind of goofy sweetness. Burgundy lacks that charm, and his smarm becomes irritating. Ferrell does stay consistently in character, but in this case that works against the film. It’s too much Ron. Christina Applegate is surprisingly adept as Veronica Corningstone, making her sexy and funny and stupid enough to fall for Ron. The always reliable Fred Willard is one character that never overdoes his jokes. As the boss at the station, he is often to be found on the phone discussing his child’s latest foray into sociopathology. His deadpan delivery makes these moments funny and he keeps them short enough that they never wear out their welcome. Carell, as previously noted, is simply wasted. The rest of the Channel 4 News Team is far more miss than hit – often awkward, rarely funny.
What we end up getting in Anchorman is a series of truly funny scenes floundering in an unfunny quagmire. Given that the lead character is so far over the top, the film needs some reduced idiocy to even out the story and keep the funny moments from getting lost in the miasma of silliness. We don’t get that and soon we’re on sensory overload, unable to appreciate the bits that do work because they’re too deeply embedded in those that don’t. Director Adam McKay seems to have had too much material here, and the inability to pare it down into a digestible mix of the intentionally funny and the necessary breaks in the goofiness that allow the funny to stand out. Written by McKay and Ferrell himself – oh, the pain, the pain! – Anchorman has enough funny material to keep it from being a complete bomb, but not enough to get it a recommendation.