What exactly was it that made Anchorman funny? If you’re one of those people who hated it, the answer is probably a simple “nothing”. But if you’re among the 2004 comedy’s sizeable cult following, you could say that it was its off-the-cuff sense of creativity. Partly improvised and almost entirely devoid of plot, 2004‘s Anchorman was a true diamond in the rough: an unpredictable comedy about a pompous news reader bumbling his way through the 1970s, jazz flute in hand.
Ron Burgundy’s since become one of Will Ferrell’s most beloved characters, and while Paramount was reluctant to finance a sequel for many years, the persistence of Adam McKay and Anchorman’s cast – not to mention a devoted following of fans – have ultimately led to Anchorman 2.
Taking place in the early 80s (one snippet of dialogue suggests that it’s 1980, but several gags suggest that it might be a bit later), Anchorman 2 sees husband and wife news reading duo Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone (a returning Christina Applegate) relocated to WBC News in Manhattan. But when Veronica’s given a promotion and Ron’s fired (on account of being “the worst news anchor in the world” according to a fun surprise cameo), Ron relocates to fledgling news network GNN – a station with the far-out idea of providing 24 hours of constant rolling news reports.
Burgundy, keen to get to the number one spot in the ratings in order to get back at his now estranged wife, gathers up his old news team – Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell) – and sets about bringing America a different form of journalism: news as entertainment, with all the police chases, cute animals and salacious gossip he can find.
The original Anchorman tried dozens of ideas before the finished product was found in the final edit – the left-over plot strands and scenes, like a gang of serial bank thieves called The Alarm Clock, were so numerous, a second, straight-to-DVD movie (Wake Up, Ron Burgundy) was assembled from the off-cuts. Anchorman 2 feels like an effort to reverse-engineer what it was that worked in the original movie, and like a joke that becomes less funny the more it’s explained, this sequel doesn’t manage to hit its mark quite as often as the first Anchorman. While there are plenty of scenes that are sure to have all but the stuffiest audience members guffawing – the strange jobs Burgundy and his news team get up to between TV gigs are really something – there are also several jokes that simply fall flat.
There’s also a worrying insistence on either reprising old gags and putting a slightly different spin on them, or worse, relying on easy laughs by referencing back to moments from 2004 – such scenes are likely to leave newcomers mystified, and returning fans smiling indulgently, but little else. Then there are portions of the movie that could be interpreted as mean-spirited or even in outright bad taste, which is strange, considering how essentially good-natured the original Anchorman was.
That, at least, is the bad news. The good news is that, when Anchorman 2 works, it works extremely well. Steve Carrell is a delight as always, and even though this new incarnation of Brick is borderline feral at times, the character remains an adorable creation. He even gets a love interest of his own – Kristen Wiig’s Chani, who’s possibly the most inept secretary in history – and the movie could possibly have withstood more of their bizarrely awkward romance.
There’s less for Brian and Champ to do overall, but the moments they do get are good value, and the latter’s nickname for bats might just win the prize for most quotable line in the entire movie. Focusing so intently on Burgundy and his strange changes in fortune, from a toe-curling romance with a ferociously forthright African-American boss (played by Meagan Good) to fairly predictable fall from grace, may push other characters out of the picture, but at least Ferrell’s protagonist is as bumptious and idiotic as he ever was.
This is just as well, since quite a few of the new characters feel like straight replacements for the old ones. James Marsden’s suave rival anchor Jack Lime stands for the original movie’s Wes Mantooth; Meagan Good’s Linda Jackson replaces Veronica Corningstone for much of the story, while GNN producer Freddie (Dylan Baker) is a stand-in for the great Fred Willard’s Ed Harken.
Returning director Adam McKay manages to get a fairly current message about modern TV news in here, with a clear and funny swipe at Rupert Murdoch, and some satirical moments which are actually quite incisive. But really, Anchorman was always at its best when it was at its most frivolous and unpredictable, like the aimless conversations over lunch or the gratuitous a cappella songs.
The moments that manage to recreate that same sense of invention are, unsurprisingly, the most successful, like an entirely disposable moment where a group of characters are collectively reading the same comic book and unapologetically laughing at it. On paper, it sounds like nothing at all, but on the screen, in the moment, it absolutely works – and it’s here, in these scenes, that the slippery secret behind Anchorman’s success hides in plain sight.
Anchorman was funny because its slipped so perfectly between outright improvisation and scenes that clearly had to be planned, yet also felt as though they were made up on the spot. Anchorman 2, by contrast, mislays some of the first movie’s sense of freshness and creativity, and tries to compensate by being louder and more over the top. Thankfully, the old Burgundy magic still bubbles back to the surface in Anchorman 2‘s more intimate, character-based scenes, and it’s these that are sure to leave audiences in stitches.