Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are comedy’s premier purveyors of pop surrealism, and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is their most dream-like film since 2008’s Step Brothers. Their method is a modified exquisite corpse. They compose a temporary script, but once on set McKay yells out increasingly absurdist lines for his actors to test out. Then the performers can spin off their own variations, pushing farther afield from the narrative and closer to a space of pure play. Needing a story to get into theaters, Anchorman 2 uses the emergence of 24-hour cable news in the early 1980s as the spine which it will later snap.
Picking up at the end of the first Anchorman (04), Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are the weekend anchors for a national news network in New York City. Corningstone is tapped by departing anchor Mack Harken (Harrison Ford, one of innumerable cameos) to replace him on the nightly broadcast. Burgundy is canned, and splits from Veronica in a macho huff. He gets his news team back together for a gig on GNN (Global News Network), where they ditch straight-up reporting and instead follow car chases and feature on-air crack smoking, garnering record ratings.
McKay has always had a progressive streak, and he stuffs Anchorman 2 with anti-corporate rhetoric and a broad caricature of Rupert Murdoch in the form of Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson), the corrupt owner of GNN. These are passing gestures, and any satiric bite is lost in the torrent of nonsensical gags that surround it. What is more radical in McKay’s work is his technique, which splinters the story until reality is overtaken by the phantoms of Burgundy’s disturbed unconscious—where he battles blindness, minotaurs, and the ghost of Stonewall Jackson.
Remove the commercial impetus and McKay’s films are not too far off from the digressive dream-reveries of Raul Ruiz (Anchorman 2 would make a fine double bill with Night Across the Street). Where Ruiz comes out of the subversive Surrealist tradition, McKay and Ferrell make the kind of nonsensical, and less threatening, Hollywood art that the Surrealists prized on screen, such as the films of Buster Keaton. Keaton came out of the vaudeville tradition that led to the Marx Brothers and the anarchic TV implosions of Ernie Kovacs. That devotion to sketch improvisation continued in comedy troupes like Second City and the Groundlings, where Ferrell and McKay honed their chops. They don’t have the same freedoms as Ruiz did, and Anchorman 2 is positioned as a box-office behemoth, with one of the most aggressive promotional campaigns in recent history. Ferrell has been making appearances everywhere in character as Burgundy, from CNN to North Dakota local news, while Paramount scours Tumblr for marketable memes. Adweek ominously described it as the “model for the future of movie marketing.” After years of studio rejections for the sequel, Ferrell and McKay are paying their publicity dues, though with more creative control than normal (as a guest on the Conan O’Brien show, Burgundy called one of his pitchman products, the Dodge Durango, “a terrible car”).
As with Ruiz, their digressive storytelling can be both invigorating and enervating, as the film’s flow is continually impeded. McKay and Ferrell make it even more audience-unfriendly by ratcheting up the abrasiveness of the news team. Champ Kind (David Koechner), a lovable blowhard in the first film, is presented as a virulent racist and misogynist, banning Catholics and Jews from his cut-rate fried chicken joint (it’s not chicken), and advocating Burgundy to slug his black, female news director Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). The most cringe-inducing sequence is at a dinner with Jackson’s family, for which Burgundy adopts a fake “black” voice, his knowledge of African-American culture probably culled entirely from Huggy Bear episodes of Starsky and Hutch. It’s queasy and uncomfortable, and I wish McKay had found a black comic to match Burgundy’s ignorance, instead of using Jackson’s family as a group of silent straight men.
Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) pursues Chani (Kristen Wiig) in a guttural mating ritual, the only bit in the movie that could be called a slow burn. Two slack-jawed yokels pawing at each other for warmth, Carell and Wiig use pockets of silence to pace their tentative union. Their scenes seem invented on the spot, a remedial game of word association that escalates into animalistic necking. Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana has the least to do, though he remains a wonderful reactor, his dumbfounded double takes worthy of Leslie Nielsen. (He would be a smarter choice to fill Nielsen’s shoes in the proposed Naked Gun remake than the telegraphed smirk of Ed Helms.)
Ferrell remains a master of voice modulation, able to wring laughs out of raising his tone a few tremulous notches. Here he squeals like a whale and barks like a dog, but what has always keyed his comedy is body control. He’s a gangly 6 foot 3, and as Burgundy, he stiffens himself into a Frankenstein-like rigidity, as if he were constantly on alert for attacks against his masculinity. You can see it when Linda Jackson aggressively flirts with Burgundy in her office. Ferrell’s whole being seizes up, his evasive maneuvers executed with the grace of a Roomba.
Step Brothers is the purest expression of the McKay-Ferrell method, with its minimum of story and maximum of improvisatory madness. That movie ends in a massive group hallucination that has no equal in recent American comedy, at least until the anchor brawl in Anchorman 2. The scene reprises the joke from the first film—a blood sport of competing broadcasters—but plunks it in the middle of the narrative climax. As plot strands are being tied up and Burgundy’s catharsis beckons past the next cut, the film instead shuts down and enters an extended fugue state. Taking pleasure in pure spectacle and the illogical associations made by McKay and Ferrell’s cracked imaginations, it’s an obscenely funny scene that rivals the controlled chaos of the climactic battle in Duck Soup, justifying everything that came before it.