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Review by Joseph Gross
During the theatrical run of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Dodge had an extensive promotional campaign featuring Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character. In the TV spots, he never actually identified himself as Ron Burgundy or reported any news or interacted with any other characters from either Anchorman film. He just wore a loud suit and said silly things with odd inflection, and Dodge’s marketers trusted that the demographics they were targeting would recognize him, think he’s kind of a big deal, and buy new cars. Over the past ten years, the original Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy has played frequently on basic cable and nonstop in the quotations of young comedy fans, embedding the legend in the public consciousness. When the long-anticipated sequel was finally produced, advertising executives recognized this, and more importantly, so did Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay.
Anchorman 2 is set in 1980, about seven years after the original. Ron Burgundy is now a national weekend anchor married to co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in New York. Once again, his unprofessional behavior has cost him his job. Once again, after leaving Veronica, very briefly returning to San Diego, and attempting suicide, he receives an unlikely second chance, this time with a transparently-veiled CNN parody launching the world’s first 24/7 cable news service. The first film largely eschewed social and political commentary (save for one jab at George W. Bush near the very end), in favor of quirky dialog, awkward situational comedy and relentless wackiness. The second still has plenty of those, but it also takes advantage of its premise to mock the 24-hour news cycle from its genesis. Using the well-known and established characters from the original, it is effective in doing so. McKay takes Ron Burgundy, icon of narcissism, ignorance, and poor journalist integrity, and places him in the middle of history. Ron and his equally maladjusted and dimwitted correspondents Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Champ Kind (David Koechner) are made the inventors of cute animal stories, celebrity gossip reporting, high-speed car chase coverage, and the infusion of patriotic platitudes into news broadcasts, which Ron now concludes with “Don’t just have a great night; have an American night.” This is all very popular with viewers, and Ron gets a primetime slot and higher ratings than his estranged wife’s. The satire isn’t subtle. It isn’t nuanced. But it is effective.
While Ron succeeds in attracting viewers, he fails in attempts in establishing actual human relationships. Among the more memorable of Anchorman 2’s many farcical diversions and subplots are Ron’s romance with his new boss Linda (Meagan Good) and his attempt to reconnect with his six year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson). In both relationships, the humor comes from Ron’s social obliviousness. His attempt to “assimilate” with Linda’s large black family is as embarrassing and offensive as you’d expect, and he fails to appropriately interact with or even recognize Walter as a child, at one point expressing suspicion that his own son is “a midget with a learning disability.” But his ego protects him from any sort of shame, and even after Linda’s dad kicks him in the face and he instills a crippling phobia of Voodoo in Walter, he considers himself a successful boyfriend and father.
Solomon tell us a haughty spirit goes before the fall, and here, such a proverb plays out when Ron injures his head in an ice-skating routine and goes blind. The fall, just like the haughtiness before it, is first and foremost a premise for gags, most of which focus on Ron doing illogical things and blaming them on blindness. So he lives alone in a lighthouse, mistaking ashtrays for waffles and eats them, because he’s blind. Nevertheless, he seems legitimately humbled by the experience, as he’s unable to find purpose in being an anchorman, and instead seeks meaning with the family he’d left behind. He grows to truly love Veronica, and develops a real fatherly bond with Walter as the two of them raise an injured shark. It’s that kind of movie.
While Ron Burgundy’s fall comes in a series of events just as absurd as most of his haughty acts, perhaps it’s to the film’s credit that it occurs at all. Burgundy may be an enduring character, but he isn’t a complex one, and Anchorman 2 succeeds in giving him some development without betraying the film’s absurd comic sensibilities. The sequel bares the original’s legacy of beloved fast-paced silliness and takes into into some surprisingly ambitious territory. That legacy is perhaps the film’s greatest asset, but it’s still too much to bear at points. Near the end, Ron, conveniently cured of blindness, forgoes covering a potentially high-rating but meaningless story to give a speech about the purpose of journalism and how corporate-control of the media interferes with that. While there are still jokes in it, it’s the closest thing in the movie to a serious moment. It’s not a bad speech, but coming from Ron Burgundy, it rings hollow. It’s from the same Ron Burgundy whose blindness, grievous injury, and attempted suicide were setups for jokes, the same Ron Burgundy who, at least once a week on TBS, can’t handle the prospect of a female co-worker and thinks “San Diego” is German for “a whale’s vagina.” With everything that’s happened, it’s hard to take him too seriously, and inadvertently makes his message seem as silly as everything else in the film. It doesn’t help that this speech is shortly followed by an outrageous battle sequence involving a minotaur, a gun from the future, and lots of gratuitous celebrity cameos.
That climactic battle scene is the culmination of the sort of elaborately-crafted nonsense present in both films. Nonsense, fondly defined by G.K. Chesterton as “humour that abandons all attempt at intellectual justification,” is easy to enjoy, but difficult to defend against its detractors. Whatever merit the often violent and vulgar nonsense of the Anchorman series has stems from that indefensible premise. It’s one thing to laugh at Ron Burgundy’s ego and later ponder what folly pride is. It’s another thing to confront pride and pretense and laugh at a description of a condom made out of mongoose hair. Bawdy gags like that might understandably offend some viewers, but they’re too ridiculous to be all that lascivious. Anchorman 2 simply doesn’t treat sex, injury, shark welfare, lycanthropy, or voodoo terribly seriously. It’s a monumental work of unseriousness, and its admirable strides outside of that are still grounded in that spirit of nonsense. From a sequel to Anchorman, that’s all that could be expected or hoped for.