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It’s been a few year since Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s last collaboration, 2010’s buddy cop lampoon The Other Guys, and for a time it’s felt like the McKay style of humor might have fallen out bit out of favor since the original Anchorman became a bona fide home video cult hit. Nine years have passed since Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) was unleashed onto the silver screen, and he finds himself returning to a different comedy landscape dominated by the likes of Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Melissa McCarthy and Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright. This is Ferrell and McKay’s first sequel, putting the focus on giving the audience the characters they fell in love with the first time around without simply rehashing jokes and scenarios we’ve seen before.
This time around, Ron and now wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) have moved to New York to continue their broadcast careers. It doesn’t take long for the station’s chief anchor (Harrison Ford) to shake up the new status quo by promoting Veronica to lead anchor on the evening news and firing Ron (the montage of his indiscretions is the first good laugh of the film). Without a rudder, Burgundy is saved when an executive for a new 24 hour news network (Dylan Baker) offers him a ground floor shot at running his own section of the day. After reuniting with his news team from the first film, Ron tries to cope with his new job, warring with a hotshot anchor hired as the face of the network (James Marsden) and the manager (Meagan Good) for dominance in this new era of marathon news coverage.
One of the charms of the original Anchorman had to do with the little absurdist bubble in which it operated. Yes, it had a specific 70’s aesthetic to it, but the period piece aspects of swinging San Diego didn’t really extend beyond wardrobe and hair choices and casual sexual harassment in the workplace. Anchorman 2 casts a wider net, both in its setting and subject matter. Ferrell and McKay fill the script with quite a few pointed satirical anachronisms this time around; one of the central conceits is Burgundy’s insular ratings-getting news style led to all of the bad habits that dominate news programs today. Cute animal videos, sensationalist car chases (one involving a white Ford Bronco), sexual material, all of it is fair game, making his newscasts into a sort of living, breathing BuzzFeed. This change of pace regarding the style of jokes has some unintended consequences. In general, the success rate of the jokes is lower this time around, in part because social commentary is actively on the table. Breaking the weird little bubble of the first film actually harms the efficacy of many of the more absurdist jabs; they are often funny on the surface, but feel like some of the force has been robbed from them.
The strange mix of absurdism and social commentary is an issue, but remains a minor one. Anchorman 2 commits two other sins that are less forgivable. There are many moments that hearken back to jokes from the first film, and in nearly every case, they’re not as funny the second time around. We’ve already seen Burgundy’s unique choice of words for his speech exercise warm-up prior to a broadcast. We’ve already seen an iteration of Brian Fantana’s hidden cabinet full of sexy gadgets (this time around a gaggle of silly condoms). In both cases, Ferrell and McKay approach the reused gag by pushing it further, making it bigger, but it comes off as a disappointing shadow of the original bit. It’s a tough situation for the creative staff; the audience expects, demands even, callbacks to the first movie’s jokes, but one of the trickiest and most difficult things to can do in comedy is repeat yourself successfully. There’s a reason why direct sequels of hit comedies are so rare. There’s a reason why McKay kept telling us there wouldn’t be another Anchorman film. This stuff isn’t easy, and McKay and Ferrell don’t really pull it off.
Anchorman 2’s second sin is simple. The second act has a good 45 minute section that just isn’t very funny. The plot forced Burgundy away from the news desk, and he is separated from his crew for quite a long time (much longer than the similar move in Anchorman, which amounted to only a few scenes), and Ferrell by himself without Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell to play off doesn’t work nearly as well as the ensemble moments. Even worse, this section of the film immediately follows a series of scenes involving a relationship between Ferrell and Good’s characters, which really just amounts to Ferrell making a bunch of tone-deaf and unfunny racist jokes that not only don’t work, but actually cross the line to discomfort. The film is a good half hour longer than its prequel, meaning there’s more opportunities for jokes even if a good hour of the film isn’t particularly funny, but having an hour of your comedy not work is never a good thing.
It’s not all bad. Much of that other hour is filled with real hilarity, in which many of those non sequiturs elicit quite a few belly laughs. Steve Carell remains the not-so-secret weapon of the franchise, casually spinning off another inspired, scene-stealing performance as the mentally challenged by adorably polite Brick Tamlin, and his role is bolstered by a silly romantic subplot involving a similarly touched coworker played by Kristen Wiig. Rudd’s Brian Fantana is on the same level as he was last time, and Koechner’s Champ Kind is held back a bit by the script over-focusing on his latent attraction to Ron, but he still works fine. Applegate doesn’t have a whole lot to do this time around, but it helped by playing off new beau Gary (Greg Kinnear), a psychiatrist who Ron assumes has mental powers due to his ability to dodge clearly telegraphed punches.
The film also ends strong, which helps immensely. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ferrell and McKay would run back the broadcaster rumble from the first film (it was the most successful scene of Anchorman, after all). Details will not be given, but it’s safe to say that the absurdity is ratcheted up so far that is becomes deliriously funny. Chock-a-block with about a dozen crazy celebrity cameos (even stretching out to include non-comic actors), it’s a grand success, ending the film on a high note, and representing the one time Ferrell and McKay pushing to go bigger actually works.
Anchorman 2 is a tough nut to crack. Its highs are pretty darned sublime, but its lows are craters of awkward despair. Unfortunately, the lows outnumber the highs, as the film’s extra length, recycled jokes and plot contrivances hurt it a little too much to be considered an unqualified recommendation. It certainly lags behind the other strong comedies of the year (It’s a Disaster, This is the End, and The World’s End), but there are enough good moments to be worth a rental, but not much more than that.