Bill Clinton may feel your pain, but no one feels his own pain better than Will Ferrell. In his equally flimsy and hilarious new vehicle Anchorman, he has a cataclysmic bout of grief on a pay phone that becomes more gut-wrenching and side-splitting with every passing second. His yowls nearly shatter the booth; his phone-mate could hear him if they were using tin cans attached to string.

The hero of Anchorman, 1970s San Diego TV-news star Ron Burgundy, is a narcissist with a heart almost as big as his head. Like Ferrell's other great characters (notably Frank the Tank in Old School), he isn't exactly empty. His problem is that his emotions twitter an inch under the skin, so he gets easily roused, then bollixed. Burgundy is perfect for Ferrell: a fellow who can't function unless he pours all his energy into his surface presentation. He wears jewelry adorned with station insignia, he keeps his hair (including mustache) freshly styled, and when depression hits he goes clothes shopping. He's not just fatuous, he's luxuriantly fatuous, parading his beer belly as if it were six-pack abs.

Ferrell has no vanity - maybe that's why he's peerless at portraying men who are all vanity (like Inside the Actors Studio's James Lipton). Burgundy brings out Ferrell's talent for finding the giggles in addled routines. Before he goes on air, he performs exercises that mostly make sense only to him, as well as a few that today would be off-limits, like taking a nip while sing-songing, "I love Scotch." On air he reads anything that goes on his TelePrompTer. His self-opinion comes from high ratings (it's the glory days of happy-talk "eyewitness news" shows), his idea of status mirrors the ads in men's mags (he's proud of his leather-bound books), and his trademark oaths invoking Zeus or Odin might derive from The Mighty Thor comic books.

As Burgundy, Ferrell proves riotous when he's faking authority, as when he definitively states that "diversity" - a word foreign to his vocabulary - is nothing more than the name of a wooden Civil War battle ship. He's even more riotous when he thinks he's telling the truth by stating the obvious, and often the obviously wrong. After all, it's hard for him to recognize what's happening right in front of his nose when his nose is buried in a Scotch glass and status and sex are so distracting. If you're Ron Burgundy, it's impossible to respond to an acquaintance's divorce woes with anything but a cheerful "fantastic" as you circulate around a pool.

At the start of Anchorman, Burgundy has the love of all San Diego (though he thinks that Germans named the city in 1904) and a posse to cover his often-exposed back: roving reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and sports reporter Champ King (David Koechner). So he can't contain himself when management brings in a female reporter, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), and breaks up his macho magic kingdom. He and his cronies protest Veronica's hiring to their boss, Ed Harken (Fred Willard), then haze her with come-ons from a time when crudeness could still be considered Neanderthal vitality.

Yet when Burgundy succeeds in bedding her thanks to his virtuosity on the jazz flute, he falls in love - and, on the air (this boy can't help it!), tells all San Diego of their mating dance. It isn't until their ambitions collide and they become reluctant co-anchors that their battle of the sexes turns into total war.

Saturday Night Live alumnus Adam McKay, who directed the movie and co-wrote it (with Ferrell), piles on broadcast-booth and bedroom skits about the days when feminist professionals like Veronica were scraping the glass ceiling - and male chauvinist pigs such as the members of Ron's gang considered Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit the height of suaveness. Wonderful knowing parodies of perennial TV-news stories (think pregnant panda) collide with clunky pratfalls; a few dry, repetitive patches put a drag on the burlesque inspirations.

Still, the looseness allows McKay to pile in diverse goodies - a risibly kitschy amorous cartoon, a goof on Gangs of New York with astute crackpot cameos, and a supernaturally gifted, scruffy little dog named Baxter (the actor is unbilled) whose entrances and exits detonate belly-rocking roars from the audience. And Anchorman leaves a warm (if slightly rancid) residue of good feeling. McKay makes Veronica and her libber friends nearly as worthy of ridicule as Ron and friends, and he fills his cast with slaphappy farceurs. Rudd deftly parodies the cocky lady-killer side of the Reynolds-era male mystique; Koechner nails its good-ole-boy (and homoerotic) side. Applegate shows she's got comedic game by putting her best foot forward, then stumbling on it.

The scene-stealer is Carell, who never wavers from the brilliant shtick of playing an idiot-savant weatherman as if he really doesn't know how to exploit any of his 48 I.Q. points. His scarily bright blank stare bespeaks his inability to process the simplest incident. Even in a two-sided rumble, he's apt to switch sides. And his urgent verbal delivery glistens with flop sweat. It's worth a ticket to watch Carell smile nervously and vacantly when he approaches Veronica with a garbled sexual invitation and another guy has to figure it out.

"I don't know what we're yelling about!" Carell's Brick screams, sincerely, when Ron and his crew argue with their producer (Willard) that "the word is anchorman, not anchorlady!" To discover why movie fans are screaming for more Will Ferrell, and to savor the work of improv wizards like Carell, go see Anchorman.

SUN SCORE: *** 1/2


Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner and Fred Willard

Directed by Adam McKay

Rated PG-13

Released by DreamWorks

Time 90 minutes

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