Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Loud Noises: ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES


There’s a lot of random silliness all over Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, a long-awaited follow up to the original cult hit. That’s in keeping with 2004’s Anchorman, a film that accommodates a somewhat sharp puncturing of sexual harassment, a scene in which an angry biker punts a dog off of a bridge, and a psychedelic animated sequence that stands in for a sex scene. This time around, writer-director Adam McKay and co-writer/star Will Ferrell step back easily into the anything goes world of Ron Burgundy, the mustachioed, egotistical, 1970’s chauvinist who strides through the films with extreme confidence, like he’s trying out poses for his own taxidermied afterlife. The first time, McKay and Ferrell created a gleefully giggly movie, broad, thin, and full of unashamed shtick, wall-to-wall quotable non sequiturs. They double down here, indulging in arbitrary asides, consequence-free slapstick, splashes of mild surrealism, and loud noises. (I don’t know what they’re yelling about!) The result is a jumbled grab bag of nonsense, creaking dead air, and patches of inspired insanity.

The first film found Burgundy and his newsroom buddies – Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner – howling in anguished sleaziness over their station manager (Fred Willard) bringing on a woman (Christina Applegate) co-anchor. It was a period piece goof about sexism in the workplace. This time, McKay has his eye on skewering the 24-hour news channels, so he traces the idea back to the late-70’s/early-80’s source, the time between the suicide smash cut to black and the darkly funny little typeface reading simply “80s” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Burgundy, having fallen on hard times, is approached by a producer putting together programming for a new network. The once-proud newsman decides to get the team back together and do what he was put on Earth to do: read the news. The early moments of the movie contain a certain amount of affection and interest for those of us who simply like seeing Ferrell, back in character after all these years, drive around picking up Rudd, Carell, and Koechner. It’s been nine years, but these guys do still good impressions of themselves.

Eventually, a plot emerges. Or rather, several plots emerge, some more important than others, none going much of anywhere, all tossed overboard at a moment’s notice if something more immediately funny (theoretically) comes along. Burgundy feels competition with a handsome hotshot anchor (James Marsden), who swoops in with the primetime slot locked down. Burgundy is also intimidated by his new boss – a black woman (Meagan Good), facts that rarely goes unmentioned, even when the guys are on their best behavior, which isn’t often. He’s unsure how to relate to his seven year old son (Judah Nelson), asking the mother “Are you sure he’s not a mentally challenged midget?” Still elsewhere, the channel’s owner (Josh Lawson) wants to meddle in news coverage for synergistic reasons and a harried producer (Dylan Baker, performing as if he told Ed Helms he’d fill in and no one would know the difference) tries to keep Burgundy and crew from failing too spectacularly, as they try to introduce vapid gossip, bullying patriotism, and endless on-screen graphics to TV news. Sound familiar?

It all plays like a brainstorming session ever so slowly galumphing its way towards something like a story. There’s lots of fine satirical intent going on here, sometimes sharp and pointed. After all, how better to say the very idea of 24-hour news channels is inherently flawed than to say these dummies invented it for self-serving career reasons. When Burgundy decides to cover a car chase live, or spend some time repeatedly, simply saying, “America is great,” McKay cuts to people all over the country staring slack jawed in awe. “Hey, guys!” one man says. “The news got awesome!” This is definitely the work of a director with a funny rage funneled into sociopolitical points. It’s almost expected. He’s the guy who made big banks a villain in his 2010 cop comedy The Other Guys and then ran graphs about the financial crisis under the end credits. That’s funny and sharp. But Anchorman 2 drifts indulgently, though, watching characters stand around acting out self-consciously funny moments. It’s as if the movie is throwing out lines and hoping some stick as catchphrases on novelty merchandise.

I think the problem is the thrust of the film trying to make us care about Ron Burgundy as a character. He was a sketch character, a buffoon whose rise and fall and rise in Anchorman was played broadly for laughs. During the course of Anchorman 2, Burgundy cycles through a half-dozen highs and lows, competing interests, and vacillating levels of self-awareness. Instead of being the butt of the joke – the first film’s thrust was puncturing his backwards ways, having us root for Applegate – he’s front and center. It’s distracting and borderline unlikable to root for a character who stumbles around obliviously, at one point casually spitting out racist remarks at a sweet family dinner, and then telling his black boss he’s blameless since it’s her fault for inviting him in the first place. The movie wants him to succeed on his own terms, even if the movie keeps forgetting about some of his motivations for long periods of time, rarely able to hold two ideas in its head at any given point.

At worst, it’s not funny. At best, the movie bubbles up into a kind of frenzied nonsense. But the bulk of its truly nutzoid moments happen in the last twenty minutes or so. Anchorman’s 94 minute runtime has here ballooned to 119 minutes, which for a while in the middle feels like three or four hours. Subplots muscle each other out for screen time. Carell’s dumb weather guy meets and falls in love with an equally dumb secretary (Kristen Wiig) for what seems like forever, but is in actuality only a handful of scenes. Throughout there are funny little one-or-two-scene performances from unexpected faces that I won’t mention here. They’re good for an unexpected smile the first time around. But then, things get pleasantly insane, erupting in events so unexpected and cheerfully nonsensical that I couldn’t help but devolve into laughter.

I won’t try to describe the final stretch of the film here. But I will say it pivots into a long period that seems to be parodying a very different kind of movie altogether and then culminates in a cavalcade of cameos I found pleasantly surprising in its hilarious escalation up, up, and away from what little reality the movie ever had. So a long, uneven comedy sends me out with a smile anyway, after a seemingly endless stretch during which the big, dumb, likable caricatures are put to use on a few distinct satirical points in between indistinct nonsense. I can’t say I want to wave off the laughter entirely, and yet I can’t recommend the picture wholeheartedly. Sometimes you just have to describe your reactions and hope it gives the wink and nod to those who are predisposed to liking this and warns off those who aren’t.

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