Ann Hornaday (c) 2013, The Washington Post
If you’ve been sentient enough to sit upright and take light nourishment over the past few months, then surely you’ve seen Will Ferrell channeling his alter ego, the puffed-up, blow-dried anchorman Ron Burgundy, as he flogs new cars or sneaks onto local television stations to deliver the nightly news, not to mention a recent stop at the Newseum. It’s been one of the most massive, ingeniously synergistic movie-promotion campaigns in recent memory, all the more startling considering that synergy itself is one of the satirical targets of the movie being so relentlessly ballyhooed.
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” the sequel to the 2004 comedy that introduced the fatuous, substance-free news reader, possesses all of the boneheaded gags and inspired lunacy of the original, as well as swaths of dull, frankly unfunny material. But buried inside this grab bag of hits and misses is a pretty good point about the descent of television news into a miasma of 24/7 speculation, fluff and, most of all, hype. Ferrell’s unrelenting charm offensive, it turns out, has been a post-modern meta thingie all along.
As “Anchorman 2” opens, Ron and his now-wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are living and working in 1980s New York, the Maury Povich and Connie Chung of their day. But when Veronica gets a coveted gig anchoring the national news, Ron goes into an alcoholic tailspin, only to be rescued by a producer with a brand-new news channel, GNN, which intends to broadcast the news 24 hours a day, without a break.
It’s such a crazy idea it just might work, and when Ron assembles his old team — Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) — they show every sign of being as bumbling and arrogantly vapid as they were back in San Diego. They get the graveyard shift at GNN, where Ron decides to woo his audience with stories about patriots, cute little animals, diets, weather disasters and “why blondes have more fun.”
Considering the improvisatory talents — even genius — of Ferrell and his co-stars, it’s no surprise that laughs abound in “Anchorman 2”: Right off the bat, during Burgundy’s voice warmups before a newscast, just the simple phrases “bat mitzvah” and “foot rub” achieve heights of improbable hilarity. As expected, most of the humor in the film — which was written by Ferrell and the director, Adam McKay — skews toward the stupid, silly and slapstick, the latter of which is on full display when Burgundy’s posse crashes the RV taking them to New York, a slow-mo gag involving cruise control, some ill-advised cargo and Baxter the dog.
At nearly two hours, “Anchorman 2” indulges in its share of ill-advised digressions. A sub-plot involving the dim Brick — played by Carell barking random, gnomic nonsequiturs — and a GNN secretary named Chani (Kristen Wiig) takes up more time and space than it warrants, and Burgundy’s obsession with the race of his African American boss (Meagan Good), culminating in a deeply offensive dinner with her family, falls horribly flat, exemplifying the preoccupations and prejudices that it pretends to ridicule.
For every witty, predictively topical punch line — BP sponsoring the dolphin show Burgundy emcees at his nadir — there’s a groaner, whether it’s a crude joke about Florence Henderson or Fantana speaking fondly of his pals back in Los Angeles: O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector and Robert Blake. “We call ourselves the Ladykillers,” he grins slyly.
One of the delights of “Anchorman 2” is its willingness to go a little crazy, at one point sending Burgundy on a sojourn to a lighthouse with unexpected results, and culminating in an all-news throwdown that plays like an orgy of in-jokes and escalatingly funny cameos. It wouldn’t be a Ron Burgundy movie without that set piece, as nonsensical an instant classic as his also de rigeur jazz flute solo (on ice, no less).
But when Ferrell is taking on cable news and corporate ownership, the humor is pointed, biting and utterly on point. One of the biggest laugh lines in the movie is when a character played by Fred Willard predicts that, rather than take the low road, the new 24-hour news programs will “only deliver the news worth reporting.” Hilarious, right? But it bears noting that, when Burgundy settles on the tag line that will ultimately replace “Stay classy, San Diego,” it’s delivered with an utterly straight face, by the character and the actor alike. And they’re both right.
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” — Two and a half stars. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, drug use, profanity and comic violence. 116 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.