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— Woody Allen, Curse of the Jade Scorpion

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Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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I’ll concede the possibility that Will Ferrell is the greatest postmodern comic genius since Andy Kaufman. As you may remember, Kaufman took “comedy” to new inscrutable heights, where it was no longer funny, but rather a torturous form of performance art. Maybe the random and bizarre “jokes” in Anchorman are brilliant (but too subtle for me).

Then again, maybe Anchorman just plain isn’t funny.

90-Minute Sketch

If random and bizarre are funny (a big if), then Anchorman is downright hilarious
If random and bizarre are funny (a big if), then Anchorman is downright hilarious

Co-written by Ferrell and director Adam McKay, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is like a Saturday Night Live sketch, dragged out to 90 minutes. Ferrell plays the perfectly coiffed, mustachioed title character who screams 1976. In person, he’s vain, stupid, macho, and clueless about his personal shortcomings. On the air, he’s confident, handsome, maybe a little shallow, but then again, maybe not for TV.

His San Diego news team — Brick Tamland on weather, Champ Kind on sports, and Brian Fantana in the field (Steve Carell, David Koechner, Paul Rudd) — are equally vapid, only they’re followers and yes-men under Ron’s blind leadership. When they are introduced, they look into the camera and describe themselves in caricature, inviting us not to take them seriously. Brick is the dumb one, Brian is the horny one, and Champ is the cowboy. That’s the extent of their character development.

For a plot, the movie introduces Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), the new management-imposed female reporter. As a female reporter, she is a threat to Ron’s ego and masculinity. As a woman, she is another conquest-to-be. For a moment, Ron actually falls in love with her and it looks like the movie might have something serious to say, but it turns out that the love thing was just an excuse for a barbershop-quartet version of “Afternoon Delight.”

Farewell, Dalí

That Ron’s team sings sincerely — and not half bad — is one of the movie’s many possible jokes. Ferrell and McKay’s script (if they indeed followed a script) often makes a completely unexpected turn like this. One minute they’re tracking the plot, then suddenly they’re singing “Afternoon Delight” or street-fighting the other news teams in a battle royale.

Some may be tempted to call this randomness “surreal,” but that’s the wrong word. Surrealism has its own dreamlike logic and a strong emotional content. Ferrell and McKay have made something with no apparent logic no more emotion than your average SNL skit. Dalí, this ain’t.

Anchorman did make me laugh. Ron and Veronica get into a backbiting, practical-joking war that is funny for about five minutes. But too often I found myself sitting through a joke, unable to even chuckle in sympathy at their effort. It made more sense to scratch my head in puzzlement than to pull my mouth into a smile.

A Comedy Test

See if you think this is funny: to impress Veronica on their date, Ron, looking out over the lights of the city, tells her that “San Diego,” translated from the German, means ‘whale vagina’.”

Is the sheer randomness of the comment what’s supposed to be funny? Or is it his stupidity that’s the joke? Maybe it’s the awkwardness of her having to correct him. Or maybe it’s the word “vagina” that’s supposed to make you laugh. I don’t know. It’s more confusing than funny.

How about this one: in the outtakes, over the credits, is an outtake from another movie (Smokey and the Bandit 2). Actually, I thought this was funny, but my appreciative crowd sat through it silently.

Will Ferrell seems like a good guy, and I wish him the best. But maybe McKay is the wrong partner for him. Maybe David Gordon Green will use him better in A Confederacy of Dunces (I hope). Or maybe his true calling is sketch comedy on SNL. There’s definitely comic talent somewhere in his charismatic frame. I just hope that he doesn’t think Anchorman is a step in the right direction. One Andy Kaufman was enough.