A few years ago, I had the good fortune to interview Steve Carell, and at one point in the conversation the subject of 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” came up. Within minutes, the two of us were just sitting there chortling like little boys, Carell at the memory of making the movie and me at the memory of watching it. A masterpiece of idiot comedy — and far and away Will Ferrell’s best big-screen effort — “Anchorman” hardly cried out for a sequel, but you know a second movie was inevitable, less to make money than to try to recapture the blissful vibe Carell and the rest of us treasured.
Well, here it is at last, and while “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is a disappointment — how could it not be? — it’s not for lack of trying. If anything, the movie tries too hard, with the quartet of stars, most of them now hovering around 50, turning beet red from the strain and threatening to burst a collective blood vessel. The sequel breaks a cardinal rule of comedy — never let them see you sweat — and, having broken it, goes giddily to town. I ended up laughing a lot and I’m only partly ashamed to admit it.
“Anchorman 2” whisks us out of San Diego in the 1970s and into New York in the 1980s, at the dawn of the cable news era. The stentorian TV newsman Ron Burgundy (Ferrell in poofy brown hair and a solid quarter-inch of foundation) has lost his job co-anchoring with wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) and, bitterly separated, is working as a drunken emcee for Sea World, where he insults the dolphins. Then Global News Network comes calling, offering a wee-hours slot for Ron and his team: studly investigative reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), forever inappropriate sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), and Carell’s Brick Tamland, weatherman and holy moron of the “Anchorman” franchise.
The sequel is once again directed by Adam McKay and written — I’m not sure if that’s the right word — by McKay and Ferrell. Maybe it’s the time the two have put in on their comedy-short website Funnyordie
.com, but they approach screenwriting less as a linear exercise in storytelling than as separate cells of improvisation assembled like sausage links. Example: Ron and the team meet their new network boss (Meagan Good), who is attractive, female, and African-American. OK, go: Ferrell can’t stop blurting the word “black” in varying stunned intonations while Carell whimpers and hides behind the sofa.
Or this: Ron crosses swords with hotshot prime-time anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) and is humiliated into . . . making funny faces. “Anchorman 2” is so scattershot that it establishes Marsden’s character as a witty and worthy villain and then abandons him entirely. At times the movie just devolves into the horrible sight of grown men laughing at themselves and expecting us to follow along. But because McKay and Ferrell are incapable of throwing away a single idea, good or bad, advised or ill-, “Anchorman 2” occasionally breaks through to realms of pure comic Dada.
A line like Ron’s impatient “Who the hell is Julius Caesar? You know I don’t follow the NBA!” can lodge in your head for days, especially if you see this movie with a crowd, everyone dodging the barrage of jokes — good, bad, and ugly. As before, Carell’s Brick is the secret sauce of “Anchorman 2,” and if his Zen gibberish seems more forced than the first time around, he’s still capable of the sublime. I will long cherish a random image of the character holding a head of lettuce and barking “Gin!”
It’s a mark of how beloved the first “Anchorman” is that so many notables show up for the sequel. Kristen Wiig as Brick’s love interest is expected, but Harrison Ford as a Brokaw-esque newsman? Greg Kinnear as Veronica’s New Age-y boyfriend? Kirsten Dunst as — actually, I can’t figure out what she’s doing here. The cameo-rama builds to a frenetic reprise of the first film’s news-anchor rumble, and while the scene’s laughs depend on surprise, I will say that the choice of the actor to play the Ghost of Stonewall Jackson is inspired and that Kanye West was wise to leave his name off the end credits.
“Anchorman 2” runs two hours, which is at least 30 minutes too long, and you’ll know the scenes they should have cut. (The entire romance between Ferrell’s and Good’s characters, for starters.) I’d keep the few pointed comments on the prostitution of news gathering and reporting in the 24-hour/500-channel era, though. It’s Ron who has the initial breakthrough — “I don’t know why we tell people what they need to hear. Why don’t we tell them what they want to hear?” — before going on to invent fluff reporting, Fox News faux-patriotism, raging infographics, and highway chase videos. Surveying what Burgundy hath wrought, one character marvels, “It’s total crap and people can’t stop watching!” That doesn’t describe “Anchorman 2,” but if Ferrell and McKay aren’t careful, it’ll do for “Anchorman 3.”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.