“There are no second acts in American lives,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, who of course died before he could see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. My guess is that the author of The Great Gatsby would have appreciated Adam McKay’s film for its portrait of a fabulously famous iconoclast who remains a mystery to his friends and loved ones, or perhaps the sequence where Will Ferrell tenderly bottle-feeds a rubber baby great white shark. There is, surely, a lot to appreciate here.
Released all the way back in 2004, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was not a world-beater out of the gate but has steadily accrued the street cred of a classic. It is precisely this Hall of Fame status that its sequel must attempt to live up to while simultaneously trying to live it down. So Anchorman 2 comes out swinging. Its comic strategy seems derived from the name of Ferrell and McKay’s pet website: “Funny or Die.”
And, make no mistake, a lot of stuff in this movie is DOA. The original Anchorman was not exactly a well-oiled narrative machine – recall that its plot revolved around the birth of some panda bears at the San Diego Zoo. Still, it got from point A to point B without too much stalling. The follow-up ditches any pretense of narrative or dramatic or satirical coherence about midway through and instead doubles down on the sort of quasi-surrealist gags that ultimately put its predecessor over the top. For instance, in that film, the benign, Zen-like stupidity of nattily attired weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) was used sparingly, like a secret weapon: Here, he’s the focal point of so many similarly staged scenes that he almost becomes redundant.
Ron Burgundy is a one-joke character too, and it’s a joke that Ferrell inhabits with every fibre of his thick, floppy body. This sotto-voiced broadcaster is a paragon of wholly unearned alpha-male vanity – a 1970s relic resplendent in polyester. As the film opens, Ron is in the midst of great personal and professional humiliation, having been passed over for a cushy network position in favour of his wife Veronica (a returning and game Christina Applegate); his response is to walk out on her and their seven-year-old son, taking a job as an announcer at Sea World (where he drinks heavily and insults the dolphins).
As in the first film, Ron’s unbelievably nasty, narcissistic behaviour only alienates the people around him about half the time, and soon he’s being courted for a gig at a newly launched 24-hour news channel. After reassembling his trusty news team – including Brick, ladies’ man Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and sports anchor Champ Kind (David Koechner) – he’s back in the saddle, albeit in a different city (New York), a different decade (the 1980s) and a different social milieu – one with people of colour, including his new boss, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good).
It’s hard to know what to make of the racial comedy in Anchorman 2, since Ron’s ignorance is obviously not being endorsed, but it also feels like the filmmakers are enjoying getting away with stuff simply because the character is so beloved. If the scenes of Ferrell blithely jive-talking his way through dinner with an African-American family are uncomfortable, the ostensibly critical depiction of cable news (spoiler: it turns out Ron Burgundy inadvertently christened the age of TV tabloid journalism) is rather toothless: How can a movie pretend to decry the cynicism of corporate synergy when it’s had one of the most ostentatious multimedia promotional campaigns in recent memory? Here, Ferrell and McKay are having their cake and eating it too and also trying to cram pies into as many faces as possible (including their own). It’s quite the sugar rush, and it’s often exhilarating, but when the movie crashes – which it does a lot – it lands with a heavy thud.
It’s difficult to discuss what’s good about the film without treading into spoiler territory, since many of its biggest laughs are predicated on the sheer unlikeliness of certain events or images – or the seemingly bottomless depth of its special-guest cameo roster (suffice it to say that at least one world-famous Torontonian shows up to get in on the fun). It’s a stacked lineup, and considering the profound un-funniness of so many Hollywood comedies, the fact that the film bats somewhere around .300 for its two-hour duration makes it feel like a genuine all-star event. Just don’t expect to see it voted into Hall of Fame.