One image sums up the problems that submarine Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) and it comes during the credits. After the principal cast and some crew are listed, three separate columns of 20 or more names each fill the screen. It’s the stunt men, the number of which doesn’t appear too different from those of 300 (2006). In the movie’s predecessor Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), much of the laughter came from the barely concealed artifice of the absurdity. Somebody got their arm cut off but it was funny because we could clearly see that they still had their arm hidden beneath their jacket. Did we really need a football roster worth of stunt men in the sequel?
Let me be clear, I’m glad these people are working and they do a nice job. And let me be clearer still, Anchorman 2 is often wildly funny, so much so that on separate occasions, I was convulsing in tears. But what keeps it from greatness is the excess, the gluttony, the overkill. Part of the original’s manic charm was the feeling that the movie was a puppy chasing after cars, randomly changing directions, gleefully going on tangents with its silly tongue hanging out. That same spirit exists here, but there’s just simply too many cars.
We catch up with Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell) in a time of crisis. It’s the early ’80s and Ron’s wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), with whom he had be co-anchoring a national weekend news broadcast, has just been promoted to being the lead anchor on the nightly news and Burgundy has been fired. He stubbornly demands that she choose between him and the show, and that gets him a quick ticket back to his native San Diego where within six-months he’s drunkenly emceeing a dolphin show at Sea World. He introduces the dolphins to the audience but can barely hide his contempt for them, stating loudly that he would eat them were he legally allowed. This is more restraint than he shows around the starfish, which he claims to sexually abuse daily which, I would imagine, would be difficult to do with an asexual creature; this gets him the boot at the park. Later he is delivered from the gutter and suicide by the new phenomenon of cable news.
Ron is hired by the Global News Network, the first 24-hour news station (a concept Ron labels as the dumbest he’s ever heard), and he’s able to bring together his old news team from his local news days. He finds Champ Kind (David Koechner) operating a chicken joint that exists under a simple motto—“I believe in two things: good chicken and that the U.S. Census is a secret government operation to make our kids gay.”—and the refusal to serve Jews and Catholics. God’s chosen people and their papal counterparts shouldn’t feel too left out, however; the chicken is made out of bat, which Champ has been told is “the chicken of the caves” in one of the movie’s best jokes, wonderfully reprised when the gang catches up with Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), now a famous feline photographer for Cat Fancy, and Champ relates that cats are “the chicken of the railyard.” Completing the quartet is Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), who the team is dismayed to learn has died. Judging by his animalistic wails at the funeral, Brick is dismayed to find he’s died as well.
With the team back together, it’s off to New York and GNN, only to find that they’ve been placed on the 2 to 5 a.m. graveyard shift, and despite Ron no longer boozily molesting starfish, Veronica will not take him back. In fact, she’s taken up with a psychiatrist named Gary (Greg Kinnear) whom Ron, a little fuzzy on the meaning of the word psychiatrist, doesn’t trust and believes can read his mind. After Ron makes a cocksure bet with the primetime anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) that his early morning broadcast will pull down better ratings, Ron comes up with the brilliant idea of scrapping hard-hitting news for car chases, celebrity tidbits, talking heads and jingoistic American back-slapping. Soon he’s a ratings superstar, coming into people’s homes on a screen so busy with graphics, crawls and charts that he can barely be seen, and suddenly, modern cable news is born. His success goes to his head and he forsakes his friends while grabbing the attention of the sexually aggressive producer at the station, Linda (Meagan Good), who is drawn to him despite his unbreakable need to simply say the word “black” whenever she’s around.
As Ron’s rocket to the moon shoots out of control, he finds himself alone and friendless but also completely blind, living in a self-described “creepy lighthouse” drinking ketchup that he believes is Chateauneuf du Pape. “I even decanted it!” he screams. One would think (and certainly others in the movie are curious about this) that his other senses would prevent him from doing these things, but blindness for Ron Burgundy is all-encompassing. “You’re talking to a man who just this morning tried to brush his teeth with a live lobster!”
To realize that it’s up to Ron to learn how to love and think of others before himself, reunite with his friends, and his wife, while returning integrity to televised news and breaking the corrupt cycle of corporate controlled media—just in time to see his son’s piano rehearsal—gives you a little idea of all the different directions Mr. Burgundy finds his magnificent mustache being pulled. The silliness and the performances are able to sustain the overeager script for a while, but in the end it collapses under its own weight in a finale that drags considerably. The movie is a satire of the state of cable news today as much as the original was an expose of systematic sexism; it’s only interested in the subject as much as it can hang jokes on it. That’s totally fine, but the movie has too many clotheslines and not enough clothes. In its best moments it has the unadorned stupidity that only really smart people can pull off, such as when Ron, nursing a pet shark with a milk bottle, sings a heartfelt ode to the killing machine. But that kind of stupidity prevents the audience from being with the movie when it wants to seriously preach about journalistic ethics.
Two diversions are the most egregious: the first, a romance between Brick and a woman at GNN (Kristin Wiig), who seems to suffer from the same mental ailment that keeps Brick from normal human behavior. Their courtship is presented like a send up of Alain Resnais’ most pretentious romances, a smattering of nonsense phrases that are understood only by the people saying them, and at first I was excited to see where it was going to go. Sadly it goes nowhere; their side plot becomes boring at best and offensive at worst, as it’s hard to shake the feeling that the jokes are at the expense of the mentally challenged. There’s more ickiness in the paring of Ron and Linda, the boss at the network. There’s never a compelling reason for the two to date and their union isn’t central to the plot, so she has the impossible task of trying to act like a real person while surrounded by racial humor that never fully lands. A visit to Linda’s family (in which Good adds modest daughter to the list of things she has to try to be that already includes ball buster and sexual shark) is particularly painful as Ron tries to “assimilate” himself by talking jive. His ignorance is always the butt of the joke, but there’s an element that the black characters are somewhat shut out of the humor. Their only job is to look offended and shake their heads as if the only humor race can provide is a white man’s misunderstanding of it.
Removing these elements would have allowed the movie to be more focused on what Ron Burgundy does well—inspired lunacy. Here’s a movie in which the foursome are tossed from a crashing Winnebago and burned with hot oil, bludgeoned with bowling balls and bitten by scorpions—and receive nary a scratch—but a tumble on ice skates renders Ron without sight (the blindness stuff is so good it almost forgives any other issues the movie has; it’s a shame we don’t leave the theater on that high instead of feeling as if we’ve been released from an overlong lecture following the unsustainable final act). The movie is undeniably funny, often very funny, but it’s just as often distracted, or worse, forced. The real problem is that it’s long enough to have long stretches of both.