What’s so different about the R-rated cut of ‘Anchorman 2’ in theaters now?

The term “director's cut” has been abused to the point of meaninglessness in the age of special edition DVDs, and it is easy for the consumer to eventually tune out any mention of a “new” version of a film, sure they're only going to see a few small differences after sitting through something they have, for the most part, already seen and fully digested.

That is not the case with the R-rated cut of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” that is in theaters at the moment. This may well set the new standard for just how different an alternative cut of a film can be, and it's a fascinating exercise in how just a few choices can make the difference between two different ratings and, in a world where studios are spending tens of millions of dollars to market a film, the economic success or failure of a movie.

By far, the biggest difference in the film is a large-scale musical number that comes near the 1/3 point in the film, in which Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell) erupt into a musical number about what a big world it is, complete with a song-within-a-song in which they imagine what the world would be like if all four of their characters were gay. For Brick, this seems to consist largely of having the powers of Spider-Man, and basically, if you laughed at that idea, then you'll probably enjoy seeing an even more Adam McKay-ier version of what I already declared the Adam McKay-iest movie ever made.

It still seems somewhat miraculous to me that we even live in a world where Adam McKay films are getting made, because of all the guys who could have made the jump from the writing side of the “Saturday Night Live” talent pool, McKay seems one of the unlikeliest. His sense of humor is probably best summed up by the Bill Brasky sketches he wrote for the show, which are surreal and belligerent, and which take place in a world that is utterly unlike the one we live in. There's no way the characters in “Anchorman” can function in reality. They are the worst parts of people, cranked up loud and then filtered through that bizarre love of the random that marks so much of the language of McKay's work.

What makes this different than your normal director's cut is that the musical number is not the only thing that's changed. It feels like pretty much every place where McKay and his editors Brent White and Mellissa Bretherton could make a difference choice, they have. In scene after scene, they have picked different takes on each joke, building the rhythm of the scenes differently, ending in totally different places sometimes. The story is identical. Walter (played by Judah Nelson) is funnier in this cut of the film by virtue of having better lines and his dialogue feeling more transgressive. Oddly, one of the few sequences that feels pretty much the same, with only a few variations, is the giant rumble between all the guest star cameos near the end. It's very, very similar, if not identical. My guess is that they had so little time with each group of cameo actors that they couldn't really play the way they could in the other scenes they shot. The scenes that are the most different tend to be the ones played between the core four guys.

For example, there's the Winnebego sequence where they're all trading stories about things that happened to them in the past, and they are totally different stories in this cut. I wish the scene had played the way this one does for the first half, and then like the theatrical cut for the second half. I'm not sure how McKay made the choices he did, because I think there are many examples here where I would have preferred a gag or a run of jokes. Oddly, the names of the various condoms in Fantana's Jimmy Cabinet is funnier in the PG-13 cut than in the new one. They're just better jokes. It's a case where I don't think the “lesser” rating feels toned down at all. The R-rated version doesn't feel like a merciless abuse of the ability to swear more, which I'm glad to see. McKay and Ferrell can certainly embrace the crazier jokes they can tell in an R-rated film, and “Step Brothers” feels like a film that fully embraces how far you can go in an R. This is more like an R by default, and I don't think it particularly gains anything from being recut for this rating.

More than anything, it is clear after watching this alternate cut that the main thing that needed to happen for “Anchorman 2” to really be a knock-out was it needed to be much shorter. There is an overall story fatigue that kicks in during the last third of the film, as it has to tie up the various story threads at the exact time that it should just be making you laugh instead. McKay needed to make harder choices here, and while I think it would have been a tough blow for one cast member in particular, it is the Meagan Good stuff that should have gone first. I like the idea of what they're doing way more than I like the execution. It feels like a real misstep, and when you're trying to play humor about how oblivious someone is towards issues of race, you have to walk a fine line so you're not telling racist jokes. I don't think “Anchorman 2” ever tips over into actually being racist but that's because it is almost too careful. Burgundy's such an over-the-top buffoon in his most racially uncomfortable moments that there's never any danger of it being offensive to anyone. “Blazing Saddles” remains one of the great comedies about race because it is unafraid of possibly offending, and it ends up feeling brave. I think they could have lost at least 20 minutes by losing the whole fake love interest storyline, since it never ends up going anywhere or affecting the outcome of the movie in any way.

This is a fascinating experiment, far more successful than “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy!” was the first time around. I can't imagine many filmmakers every having the volume of choices that would justify building an alternative cut like this, but I'm glad McKay is giving comedy nerds a chance to see just how important each of the choices he made was on the theatrical cut. If you don't manage to see this during its one-week theatrical run which started on Friday, rest assured you'll get a chance when the film arrives on Blu-ray special edition later this month.

“Anchorman 2: The R-rated Cut” is playing in theaters now.