When Will Ferrell and his frequent director and writing partner Adam McKay get together, they are capable of making beautiful, stupid comedy magic. Sometimes, their best conjuring happens on a small scale, as with The Landlord, the filmed sketch that was the foundational video at McKay and Ferrell’s now-indispensable comedy website, Funny or Die. McKay and Ferrell’s big-screen collaborations (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys) often manage both to be funny and, in the stretches between flights of inspired idiocy, to die. The Ferrell/McKay style of conceptual, improv-based, sometimes surrealistic comedy doesn’t lend itself easily to sustained storytelling. But the pair were never better than when they made their first feature, Anchorman (2004), which starred Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, a pompous local news anchor in San Diego (or, as he inexplicably insisted on pronouncing it, “San Di-AH-go”).
In the years since, Anchorman has become a cult favorite, a treasure trove of quotable one-liners and an influence on a whole school of film comedy about dumb, crude, selfish, yet still somehow loveable dudes. So Ferrell and McKay’s Anchorman 2 arrives in theaters with both a built-in audience and high expectations. The movie they’ve delivered makes you laugh harder at more regular intervals than the vast majority of comedy sequels, so in that sense it’s a roaring success (as I suspect it will be at the box office). But McKay and Ferrell’s method of throwing every possible joke at the wall and seeing what sticks also results in a lot of joke-spaghetti slowly sliding to the floor.
We begin in the early 1980s, seven years after the last installment ended. Ron is now married to Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), his anchorlady-archrival-turned-sweetheart, and they have a young son, Walter (Judah Nelson). When Veronica is offered a plum network-news job on the same day Ron is laid off, he tries to make her choose between her career and him, then leaves in a huff when she chooses the former. After a depressing stint as the host of the dolphin show at Sea World, Ron is given a shot at reassembling his team for a show on the up-and-coming cable-news network GNN.
That team includes sleazy reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), who’s now making a killing photographing kittens for calendars; dumb-as-dirt weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), who’s believed to be dead until he somehow shows up to mourn himself at his own funeral; and straight-up insane sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), who’s running a fried-chicken franchise that actually serves fried bat (or, as Champ euphemistically dubs it, “chicken of the cave”). The getting-the-gang-together montage leans a little too hard on the audience’s indulgence for these characters, though McKay wins back our goodwill by ending the sequence with a super-slow-motion Winnebago rollover scored to the Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.”
Once Ron’s proudly incompetent news team has arrived in New York, complications arise. They’ve been given the graveyard shift, 2–5 a.m., while the prime-time spot has been handed to the odiously suave Jack Lime (a very funny, golden-lit James Marsden). The head of the network, Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson) is an incomprehensible Aussie with shady business connections. And to Ron’s utter bafflement, their show’s producer, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good) is young, female, gorgeous, and black—a word he can’t stop repeating over and over, tic-like, at the meeting where they’re introduced.
Some viewers may find the recurring thread of racial humor in Anchorman 2 offensive, especially in a later scene when Ron, at dinner with Linda’s respectable middle-class family, can’t stop trying to ingratiate himself with excruciating attempts at jive-talk. It’s true not all of these jokes land (and the dinner scene wears out its welcome after the first few laughs), but it’s clearly Ron’s white-guy obliviousness, not the family’s discomfort, that’s the intended target of mockery. I was more bothered by the fact that, after this awkward family meal, Linda and Ron would continue to date—shouldn’t it be a deal-breaker when your boyfriend attempts to high-five your dad as he crows over his good fortune at “gettin’ some”?
But asking for plausible character motivation from anyone in Anchorman 2 is a fool’s game. This is a movie that regularly comes to a complete storytelling stop to allow for near-Dadaist bits of improvisation, like the exchanges of non sequiturs that pass for romantic banter between the barely functional Brick and the possibly-even-dumber Chani (Kristen Wiig), a hapless GNN secretary. An extended story-within-a-story near the end of the movie has Ron first going blind in a skating accident—that’s what you get when you try for a triple axel while playing jazz flute—and then holing up at a remote lighthouse while he lovingly hand-raises a pet baby shark named Doby.
It’s these flights of inspired weirdness—also including an uproarious tour of the Rudd character’s elaborately stocked condom cabinet—that make Anchorman 2 worth a watch despite occasional laugh-free stretches and a clumsily grafted-on do-gooder plot involving that evil Aussie media tycoon. Everything comes to a head in an epic journalist-on-journalist battle sequence that takes the anchor-versus-anchor showdown of the first movie to the next level of cameo-studded ridiculousness. I won’t reveal any of the surprises in this triumphant final scene, except to observe that there’s an oft-quoted line from the original Anchorman that pretty much covers it: “Boy, that escalated quickly.”