Review: ‘Anchorman 2’ actually smuggles in some smart satire amidst all the silly

Adam McKay might be one of the strangest guys making mainstream comedy right now, and one of the things that I dearly love about his work is that the more success he has, the weirder he allows himself to be. He and Will Ferrell have built a lovely filmography out of making a series of films together that seem to be divorcing themselves more completely from reality each time out.

As a result, when you look at “Anchorman” next to “Anchorman 2,” you can see that there’s been an evolution between the two, and how you feel about the film is going to depend largely on how you feel about a movie that doesn’t seem terribly interested in any sort of traditional structure and that resolutely refuses to take anything seriously. Even when it seems like the movie is starting to tip into some weird maudlin territory regarding the relationship between Ron (Ferrell) and his young son Walter, it’s all just a chance to rip on the Hollywood cliche of making comedies about how every working father is neglectful and stupid, especially ones that work hard at their jobs.

The McKay/Ferrell comedies are all so dense that I inevitably have the same reaction. I laugh a lot the first time, then I wonder if there’s anything more to the film, and then when I see them a second time, I am struck by a whole new group of jokes. I think they throw so much into their films at this point that it’s hard to argue that anyone out there packs more gags into a feature film right now. They are relentless, and “Anchorman 2” just attacks from the moment it starts. Since the first film featured Ron’s evolution from complete sexist to only a nearly-complete sexist and he managed to win over Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), this film has to open with Ron’s fall from grace. It’s handled quickly, and then the film begins the process of his redemption.

McKay’s real target here is nothing less than the modern mainstream media, and Ron’s gone from being a source of local amusement, a signifier of a clueless bumbling White Male Icon that got steamrolled by the ’70s, to being the actual source of All Modern Evil in the form of his job at GNN, the very first 24-hour cable news network. He’s approached by Dylan Baker with an offer to put the old Action News team back together, leading to a series of increasingly absurd reunions with Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamaland (Steve Carrell), who appears to have actually lost IQ points in the decade since the first film. What’s clear is that McKay and Ferrell have listened over the course of the last decade and that they know what it is people like about the characters. Champ has become more overt in his intense love for Ron, Brian is as cheerfully skeevy as ever, and Brick is deployed like a weapon in most of the scenes, given one or two massive non-sequiturs. All four of the leads drop back into their characters as if no time has passed, and these are absolutely the same guys we enjoyed the first time around, something not every sequel can get right, especially after a decade has passed.

The guys are given the midnight shift at first, while the genetically chosen Jack Lime (James Marsden) is given the primetime spot, and the joke is that Lime is an old-school news reader, a strong face to deliver the vegetables, and Ron and his team represent the dumbing-down of the discourse, the shift from what we need to know to what we want to hear. Sure, James L. Brooks was lamenting this back in 1988, but what he was upset by looks positively benign compared with the disturbing media beast that exists now, pumping garbage out at an unstoppable rate at this point. It’s white noise, and it’s omnipresent, and McKay lays the blame for all of it at the feet of Ron Burgundy. After all, only a complete jackass would have wanted what we have now over what we used to have, right?

Car chases appear to be a particular fascination of Ron’s, and I thought it was both compelling and surreal that when I got out of the screening of the film and turned on my computer, my social media feeds were filled with comments about a televised car chase in LA, complete with a “shot-to-death-in-front-of-everyone” finale. A few people seemed unsettled by the idea that they saw the actual money shot, but no one seemed remotely phased by the entire idea of the chase itself. It’s just the way things are done.

The film lurches from comic set piece to comic set piece. There’s a “story” in a loose sense, but it feels more like they’re just laughing at the entire idea of telling a serious story about Ron Burgundy’s personal growth. These characters are completely disconnected from reality at this point. It’s a cartoon world where they can flip an RV with all of them inside and we can see the insane punishment they take and they can laugh about it 30 seconds later. I particularly enjoyed the deranged love story between Brick and a secretary named Chani (Kristen Wiig). There’s a scene where the two of them confront Chani’s boss, played by June Diane Raphael, and it’s so weird I can’t believe it’s in a real movie. That’s how I’d describe at least ten different scenes in the film, actually, including two back-to-back love scenes that left me sore from laughing. McKay seems to be willing to try any sort of joke, no matter how odd, and I love the energy of that. Sure, when there are this many different jokes thrown at you, some land, some don’t, but which ones those are will probably be different for every viewer.

I think the cast is great, and Megan Good and James Marsden both deserve props for dropping right into the midst of the “Anchorman” world and seeming like they fit perfectly. Good works hard in her role, but the film’s attempt to show Ron’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment is one of the few comic threads that seems less than fully considered. I get what they’re trying to do, and in many ways, it’s this film’s version of what he went through with Veronica on the first film, trying to get his head around the idea of women in the workplace. He tries desperately to show how cool he is with his boss being a black woman, and in one family dinner sequence in particular, his casual racism is played so horrifyingly broad that I think it undermines the good points it makes. Marsden fares better with the way his rivalry with Ron is charted, and I think he continues to be one of those great secret weapons for comedy filmmakers. I’d love to see McKay make a film with Marsden in a larger role, because I think part of Marsden’s appeal is the way he’s a stealth freak. He looks like a leading man, but he’s positively cracked, and McKay’s sense of humor only makes Marsden seem even more perverse.

Does “Anchorman 2” suffer from some of the problems faced by most sequels? Yes. Absolutely. While I appreciate how far they go with it, the inevitable callback to the first movie’s completely bananas news crew rumble sequence is gigantic, packed with cameos, and basically the same joke again, and it’s way too long and not nearly as surprising as it was the first time around. But for the most part, “Anchorman 2” takes the characters to a new setting and makes a genuine point with the way the story’s told. Not much more you can ask from a sequel than that.

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” opens everywhere December 18th.