If ever a movie could be described as having a ‘lighting in a bottle’ comic energy, it would be Adam McKay’s original Anchorman. More than silly, and miles beyond ridiculous, the film is a product of full-on creative lunacy, a comedy so positively, inconceivably bonkers that the only logical explanation for how it could exist in such pure, unhinged form is that everybody involved went mad on the first day of shooting. The jokes land as hard as they do because there is often no clear rhyme or reason to them whatsoever – the film is an intense shock to the system, a rewiring of one’s basic sense of comedy, and I believe the core reason Anchorman is so enduringly quotable is because the words that come out of the character’s mouths have no business being arranged in sentences together. “I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” “Bears can smell the menstruation.” “I’m in a glass case of emotion!” The dialogue is so weird, so out there, so completely unhinged from rational thought, that lines are constantly being seared into the viewer’s mind through sheer force of oddity.
In short, Anchorman was a bit of a miracle, a slice of blinding comic inspiration captured expertly on film – which is something that can, in truth, be said of most great comedies. The comedies that endure are the ones that bottle up a really special, truly surprising creative energy, and the reason that comedy sequels are so notoriously horrid is because trying to capture and recreate something that ephemeral and inexplicable is a daunting, often insurmountable task.
This is all the long way of saying that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a tremendous pleasure, because while it cannot and does not re-bottle the precise energy of its predecessor – though it comes astoundingly close on countless occasions – it works on its own merits, replacing what cannot be recreated with an equally invigorating, if slightly less surprising, energy of boundless comic invention and all-around creative enthusiasm. And with an unexpected satirical core – an angry, unfiltered, and extremely perceptive assault on the 24-hour news cycle – Anchorman 2 even manages to say something. By the more conventional critical standards one would be hard pressed to apply to the first film, one could even argue Anchorman 2 is the superior motion picture – though it would be more accurate to say McKay and company have followed a classic with another amazingly great comedy. At that point, comparisons are no longer needed; the accomplishment speaks for itself.
The film picks up in 1979, with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) being passed up for promotion by his wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, used less here than in the original but still to great effect). Being Ron Burgundy, this ‘insult’ sends his life into total disarray, and sees the film returning to one of the most reliable comic wells from the first film – Ron Burgundy in emotional distress. It’s something Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues does on several occasions, revisiting certain status quos or comic scenarios that worked well the first time around, but for the most part, they do so without quoting or repeating old jokes. The film and its performers have such a clear, firm grasp on these characters, and there is such a compelling tonal confidence to the lunacy on display, that McKay and company are perfectly capable of spinning countless new, riotously funny jokes from moment one. It also helps that the context has changed – shifting things a decade ahead to the early 1980s is inspired in many ways, but on a comedic level, it is most fundamentally crucial for allowing the actors to play their age, to let there be a gap between this film and the last one, and to let the film and its humor define itself in a clearly evolved context.
Overall, Anchorman 2 does such a natural, seemingly effortless job of reentering and then expanding upon this world that when the shift into a deeper satirical gear comes, it lands as a simultaneously funny and uncomfortable kick to the gut. A new journalistic experiment is being launched out of New York, a 24-hour news network called GNN, and in pulling Burgundy and his news team out of obscurity to anchor the 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM graveyard shift, the network inadvertently hails the death of TV journalism as America once knew it. Going into the film, it was easy for me to imagine McKay and company sending up what TV news started to become in the early 80s – what I very much did not expect was that they would lay the blame right at Ron Burgundy’s feet, structuring the story in such a way that it is Burgundy’s own low-attention span, ignorance, and social deafness that would serve as the instigator for the film’s fictionalized downfall of TV news.
It makes sense the moment it happens – of course the Ron Burgundy we know from the original film would burn the fourth estate to the ground if given this opportunity. What shocks me is how completely invested Farrell and McKay are in showing Burgundy to be a thoroughly awful person, terrible for the exact reasons we find him funny, and that the film’s comedy is only enhanced by digging in deep on Burgundy’s reckless streak of journalistic destruction. Yet as funny as it is to see Burgundy and his team dismantle the tenants of television reporting once given the keys to the kingdom, the material is also deeply, unshakably frightening, because the further Ron Burgundy plunges into birthing the characteristics of modern ‘news’ networks, the more his crazy, unhinged, lunatic world looks like the one we live in now. Burgundy choosing to forego reporting on economics and foreign affairs to show clips of funny animals, or deciding to report on a random car chases without thought, or letting Brick stand outside in the wind and speculate wildly about how New York is in severe danger due to mildly unfamiliar weather – these are all the kind of crazy, silly jokes that feel perfectly at home in the Anchorman universe, and yet they also exist completely in our modern media. Anchorman 2 may not be giving a factually accurate account of how American TV news was dumbed down to nothing, but its central thesis is irrefutable: That what the format has left us with is a whole lot of Ron Burgundy’s, ignorant, narrow-minded, and loud. And if that isn’t one of the canniest, cleverest ways to make a comedy sequel worthwhile – using the comic language of the first film to comment on the insanity of real life – I don’t know what is.
The film also has some surprisingly sharp (though no less ridiculous and funny) observations to make about race and racial perceptions, as Ron’s new producer at GNN, Linda Jackson (played wonderfully by Meagan Good), is a black woman who eventually strikes up a romance with him. One of the biggest problems on cable news today is how little so many leading news personalities seem to understand about race in the United States, or how they invariably blow race out of proportion in many different directions – see Megyn Kelly insisting Santa Claus and Jesus are factually and unequivocally white, something too silly to exist even in the world of Anchorman, I think – and in Burgundy’s relations with Linda and her family, we see the seeds of that being planted. Burgundy’s worldview is simply too insular, his interpersonal senses too untrained and tin-eared, to see and treat Linda as anything but ‘the other,’ and the single biggest laugh of the film – which is saying a great deal, mind you – comes in a moment that perfectly encapsulates everything Ferrell and McKay have to say about how Burgundy and people like him view their interactions with those they have ‘otherized.’
One of the clearest examples of how the comedy in Anchorman 2 is slightly recalibrated from its predecessor lies in the work Steve Carell does as loveable half-wit (quarter-wit?) Brick Tamland. Carell’s work in the first film is miraculous, as far as I’m concerned, his comic timing unlike anything I have ever seen elsewhere. It’s like Carell and Brick exist in a separate dimension from all the other characters, floating abstractly along the sidelines, popping in on occasion to drop a completely nonsensical – and endlessly hilarious – punchline, without ever fully existing in the same world as his peers. By the simple fact of Carell having a hugely expanded presence in this film – he’s moved up from fifth to second billing, reflecting what an extraordinary run the man has had these past nine years – that weightless, ungrounded quality isn’t quite here. But it doesn’t need to be – what Carell does is still amazing, every word out of his mouth (and most of his facial expressions) getting big laughs from the crowd. He gets to interact with the other characters more directly, which proves to be a subtle and refreshing shift, and his relationship with one of the film’s many new characters, Chani – a female equivalent of Brick played with equal comic genius by Kristen Wiig – seems too uproariously funny to be real.
The comedy overall is a tad more calculated this time around, obviously, as the sequel is following up on something that felt truly spontaneous, but it is still admirable how many of the jokes – and there are hundreds of them – honor the sheer breadth of Anchorman lunacy. From Burgundy’s nonsensical interjections to Brick’s out-of-left-field asides to even background details in the production design, anything and everything is fair game, no joke seems obvious or predictable, and ration is firmly, perpetually denied. There is even a stretch around the film’s middle – involving a shark, a lighthouse, and a character tragically struck by blindness – that comes damn close to recapturing the spontaneous “what-on-earth-am-I-watching?” quality of the first film, and if Anchorman 2 may prove to be slightly less quotable on the whole, I counted a good five or six lines, just on my first viewing, that I know have permanently entered my movie vernacular. And all analysis aside, the film is simply funny – riotously, unceasingly, painfully funny, with nearly every joke landing hard.
It is so hilarious, in fact, that when the film encounters legitimate problems in its last act, they are extremely easy to forgive. One of the many subplots in the film involves Ron’s failure to be a good father to his 6-year-old son, and while it is an excellent parody of the dumb ‘father-who-is-too-busy-for-his-children’ Hollywood cliché, the parody is not quite as funny, nor nearly as intellectually rewarding, as the sharp satire being done back in the newsroom. But the parody becomes the spine of the film as it nears its conclusion, and that has the double effect of lessening the weight of the movie overall, and letting Ron Burgundy off far too easily for his journalistic crimes. In its home stretch, the film also goes much deeper into revisiting a comic set-up from the original than it does at any other point, and while repetition isn’t the problem – the climax is very funny, and peppered with excellent, well-employed cameos – the scene in question severely throws off the pace in what had up to that point been a remarkably well-paced movie.
But again, when all the material is so uniformly entertaining, it feels improper to complain too much. The cast really gives this one their all, with the returning players sinking comfortably back into their roles – Paul Rudd and David Koechner are both fantastic, and Koechner in particular is used much better here than he was in the original – and the bevy of new actors fitting in perfectly. But as great as the supporting cast is, this is Will Ferrell’s show, at the end of the day, and his performance is extraordinary. Ron Burgundy is and will forever be his greatest character creation, and the ease with which he inhabits the part is as impressive today as it was in 2004. Ferrell has made his fair share of good movies and bad movies, but Anchorman 2 is a welcome reminder that he is one of the most formidable comic performers alive today, and while I don’t necessarily need to ever see another Anchorman movie, I hope he continues to find projects that creatively invigorate him as strongly as this one.
If for nothing else other than its incredibly high laugh-per-minute ratio, Anchorman 2 must certainly stand among the greatest comedy sequels ever made (not that the competition is particularly thick). But in its satirical edge, Anchorman 2 manages to break free from the shadow of its predecessor, and if it weren’t for the minor missteps of the final act, I suspect I wouldn’t have any trouble declaring this the better film. Ultimately, the original Anchorman is the purer of the two movies, but in its ambition and execution, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a pretty major triumph, and I can easily see myself cherishing this movie right alongside the first film for years and years to come.
Simultaneously honoring the spirit of the original while finding its own comic energy and satirical edge, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" is a triumph, the rare comedy sequel that really, truly works, and easily one of the funniest films this year.