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Monday
Dec302013

« In Which The Protagonist Never Was Very Good »

Having Made It

by NOAH DAVIS

Anchorman II: The Legend Continues
dir. Adam McKay
119 minutes

A friend and I saw Anchorman the day it came out in 2004. Twenty-four hours later, we were back in those same bucket seats at the Providence Place Mall, laughing at Ron Burgundy and the gang in a half-filled theater. Fast forward six days and some friends who had grown tired of not having any context for our endless quoting came along as we saw it for the third time in one week. 

In the journalism world, this story would help establish some sort of journalistic credibility, a reason why I am fit to review Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (In the real world, all it does is establish the fact that I had nothing to do in the summer of 2004.) It's akin to a cheeky anecdote Burgundy might tell his viewing audience, punctuating the narrative with a fake laugh and a wink at the camera, an in-joke between him and his millions of adoring viewers.

He has that massive audience because the sequel – nearly a decade in the making – begins with our favorite mustachioed anchorman and his anchorwoman wife, Veronica Corningstone, having made it to the big time. The duo are reading the news in New York City. The Big Apple. Unique New York. The pair looks older but only one of them is wiser. Within minutes, Ron gets himself fired and ends up hosting a dolphin show at the San Diego aquarium. This goes poorly.

He is at the end of his rope, quite literally, when a man arrives to rescue him. You see, some wacko Australian airline tycoon has a crazy idea to launch a 24-hour news network. He wants Ron and the news team to work the graveyard shift. Burgundy acquiesces, hijinks ensue gathering the group, and, eventually, they arrive in Gotham.

The legend does indeed continue, mostly because the template has not fallen very far from the movie outline tree. The voiceover guy does his voiceover thing. Burgundy has lady issues. Champ Kind yells. Brick is a bumbling moron, right up until he's not, and then he is again. Baxter saves Ron from certain death by animal. A massive news team brawl features more cameos than recent Saturday Night Live episodes. Burgundy messes up his life, learns a lesson (sort of), and we go home happy. It's essentially the same film.

So why is it so unsatisfying?

The original succeeded because it delicately bounced from bit to bit. It's not Citizen Kane, but it's an elegant conglomeration of character studies that understands its strengths. The film doesn't get bogged down in things like "plot" and "morality" and "lessons." When Burgundy, always a buffoon, gets his comeuppance, we've seen it coming since the opening minutes. It's a tacked on resolution that only occurs because all movies need to end. Nearly everything that happens does so inservice of getting to the next sight gag, absurd scenario, or Brian Fantana report from the field. It's no coincidence that the initial idea to base the movie around Corningstone's abduction by a Maya Rudolph-led gang didn't work.

Anchorman II is funny – more so than I expected, honestly – but it's not particularly fun. Like other recent Ferrell vehicles it's part of a class of comedies that feel the need to be about something more than laughs. It wants to make a point about The Way We Live Now, using the 1980s as a parable. Which fine, whatever, but this is also a movie that features a person getting hit in the gut with a bowling ball and Brick's stupidity played for laughs. These are, obviously, at odds with each other. Why must these comedies be infused with such heavy-handed morality plays? Where's the levity? Tis the season, after all.

It's also the season for commerce, and it's impossible to write about Anchorman II without discussing the massive marketing campaign that was unlike anything ever. Jesse David Fox's piece on Vulture offers the best summation of the blitz, but it essentially boils down to creativity inspired by a small budget. Ferrell, for example, didn't get paid for doing those Dodge Durango ads. He certainly has plenty of money (and may get some percentage of the produces due to his producing credit), but he still did an impressive amount of free promotion. In the past, Ferrell has said Burgundy is his favorite role to play – he's basically just saying things that make him laugh – and it's clearly true. His joy is evident, which makes it even stranger that the film is so un-fun.

If the opening weekend is any indication, the promotional push largely failed. The movie grossed $26.8 million, less than the first one, which was the 23rd biggest opening of 2004. (It only made $85 million, a disappointing 30th overall. The film sits sandwiched between The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed on the 2004 total gross chart.) Anchorman gained a cult following later, slowly and organically. This one won't fare as well. It feels like it's looking into the past rather than forward-thinking like the original, which spawned hundreds of memes. It's surprising for Anchorman II to miss since every good newsman knows his audience. But then again, Burgundy never was very good.

Noah Davis is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about Calvin and Hobbes. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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