For some people in the United States, the late 1970s signify a halcyon age of fondue pots, the AMC Gremlin and disco ascendant.
Never mind that the half-decade sandwiched between the horrors of Vietnam and assassination fever on one side and AIDS and Reaganomics on the other was also a time of social upheaval, though admittedly less well-covered on the evening news.
Like “Starsky and Hutch” before it, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” parodies 1970s excess -particularly the sartorial kind – while vaguely alluding to some of the conflicts that raged beneath the surface sheen of smiley-faces and bad pop music. Unfortunately for the film’s comedic potential, it pulls its punches on the comedy angle while simultaneously taking the politics relatively seriously.
Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the utterly vapid and incompetent anchorman of a San Diego television news team. Into his placid life of banal excess drops Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), a go-getter female journalist who’s out to shatter the glass ceiling that keeps women out of the anchor’s chair.
The film focuses most of its attention on the (now criminal) attempts by Burgundy and his cohort of idiots to make Corningstone so uncomfortable that she gives up her feminist quest. The level of crudity they descend to is somewhat amusing. However, the filmmakers can’t resist cross-cutting between this story and Burgundy’s inane attempts to seduce his rival. Though it strains credulity, she actually goes for him, despite his stupidity and male chauvinism.
While “Anchorman’s” cast is loaded with the big names in comedy (the white ones at least) like Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson, the script never manages to click over from fairly hackneyed jokes about hair, polyester clothes and questionable home decorating to a solid parody of the past.
Aside from Black’s brief cameo as an irate outlaw biker, and another by Tim Robbins as the duplicitous PBS-affiliate anchor, there are few out-and-out hilarious moments. Instead, “Anchorman” spends its time making Corningstone seem ever-more virtuous and deserving of her success at Burgundy’s expense.
This misplaced emphasis serves neither feminist politics nor the demands of comedy. While it doesn’t exactly trivialize the struggles of women to be taken seriously as professionals, it hardly makes those struggles interesting. And of course, there’s never any critique of the fact that most of the gains from those struggles went to middle and upper-class white women, leaving many other women behind.
“Anchorman” would be a much better film if it stayed away from the politics of the era entirely and concentrated on mocking the superficial silliness of that strange time.