Anchorman: Good Bad Velvet Elvis

The 1970s are the unfortunate velvet Elvis of this century, especially for men.

The new comedy Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy showcases the gaudy ugliness of the decade. Occasionally so over the top that it comes out the other side, the film is an uneven collection of skit bits, cunning satire and witty observations. Sometimes riotously funny, occasionally deeply stupid, Anchorman ultimately succeeds because the filmmakers love their material.

Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is a top-rated anchorman at a television studio in San Diego in 1977. He and his cracker-jack team of reporters have the market cornered and live in a sort of faux glamour usually reserved for second-tier porn stars. The team brings a relaxed machismo to everything they do, whether it’s partying by a pool drinking pina coladas or mixing it up with rival news teams on the street, and Burgundy is undeniably the man.

The party never seems to end for him, but then again it never really gets off the ground, either. Burgundy is not exactly a man of action, unless you consider looking classy a sort of sport, but he seems to embody the mood of his day. The sedate ’70s were a decade of exhaustion and superficiality. Baby boomer men mothballed their tie-dyed T-shirts and picked up tacky corduroy suits, and the deep browns and beiges looked positively retrograde after the day-glow colors of the sixties.
Woman’s lib created a crisis in masculinity and wildly divergent ideas of maleness rubbed elbows in popular culture. Masculine roles vacillated as new sexual attitudes (like gay macho) became recognizable in pop culture, and the general tide of the masses was to buttress old ideas of man-ness embodied in magazines such as Playboy.

Ron Burgundy is a lifestyle playboy living in a world of deep mahogany and pungent Old Spice. He is a role model for 1970s masculinity as an anchorman, showing the supreme confidence that can only come from utter shallowness. He’s the alpha male in an age of peacocks, and the film works best when it explores the cool superficiality of the decade: The period’s mystic sexuality and swinger hip aesthetic.

(Different strokes for different folks and all that, you know baby?)

Burgundy runs into trouble when the station manager Ed Harken (Fred Willard) hires an ambitious female reporter. Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is beautiful, talented and determined, and she threatens the “men’s only” mentality at the station. Burgundy falls for her and she’s reluctantly drawn to him as well, but their relationship crumbles when she steps in to replace him.

Anchorman is a case study in the failure of masculinity in the 1970s. Ron Burgundy’s fall from grace parallels the way in which men had to reinvent themselves after women’s lib or face ridicule. Burgundy is certainly a chauvinist pig, but the ’70s playboy lifestyle he epitomizes – with its absurd style and ersatz class – is sort of sweet and cavalier, much better than the whiny, self-important, psychobabble male-ness that will follow in the form of Alan Alda.

The filmmakers walk a tightrope between celebrating this lifestyle and making fun of it. On the one hand, there is nothing funny in the way women were sidelined or forced to endure unwelcome sexual advances by side-burned creeps, and Anchorman certainly doesn’t seem to endorse this behavior. But there’s also a kind chivalry and grace in Burgundy. He is a sort of Renaissance man of the decade, enjoying life’s better things like good scotch, crushed velvet and fine women.

Silly? Yes, but not in a bad way.

Like Austin Powers before it, Anchorman rescues a forgotten lifestyle of a mostly forgotten era. The film is a gas for those of us who remember snippets of the 1970s through shows like Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, and Mary Tyler Moore, since many of the scenes are ripped from trash television.  
Unfortunately the film is very stupid at times, and stupid is rarely funny. A gang fight between rival news teams is so unintelligent that it’s difficult to watch and a cameo by Jack Black is offensively dumb.

The film sometimes pushes its material too far or wanders off into the juvenile, as when Burgundy threatens to punch Corningstone in the ovaries. If you didn’t laugh right now, trust me, you won’t laugh during the film, either.

The outstanding performances by veteran news spoofers Willard and Steven Carell and real chemistry between Ferrell and Applegate help drag the film out of the muck, but it’s the movie’s morbid love of the 1970s that saves it from being just another skit-driven comedy. Anchorman is a real treat for those of us who still relish the musky scent of manhood embodied in Ron Burgundy.

There’s nothing wrong with a good velvet Elvis once in awhile, darn it!


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