Maybe if I liked the first "Anchorman" a little less, I'd like "Anchorman 2" a little more. Still, I laughed. Louder and crasser than the 2004 original, though God knows the first one had its share of jokes ending with phrases like "massive erection" or "smelly pirate hooker," director and co-writer Adam McKay's sequel nonetheless offers a fair number of idiotic rewards. Some wander in from far-left field: Ron Burgundy bottle-feeding a shark, for example. Other bits come wrapped, smartly, inside the rich, mahogany-scented complexities and contradictions of the world's most narcissistic news reader.
In "Anchorman 2," Will Ferrell seems to be playing around with variations on the unctuous, clueless, preening Burgundy persona. Though the character's more of an abrasive boor this time — nearly everyone on screen is — you appreciate the effort to experiment, if that's the word for a big-budget comedy saddled with high financial expectations and the world's most omnivorous marketing campaign. Ferrell's deadpan (and unprintable) response to Greg Kinnear's line, "Ron, do you even know what 'psychology' is?" is a thing of unexpected beauty. In an entirely different key, Burgundy's hostile, thundering incompetence after losing his sight suggests both King Lear and Gloucester. Or it would if Shakespeare had written a tragedy about an anchorman whose hubris costs him his ability to read a teleprompter.
Loose and blithely inventive, "Anchorman" the first had a lot going for it, beginning with medium-low expectations and an ensemble of almost supernatural comic breadth and ability. Everyone was on the verge of stardom, it seemed. Now, a lot of them are stars for real. Steve Carell's back as the brick-thick weathercaster, here very wisely matched up with a new character of similar IQ, emotional intelligence and straight-faced invention. She's played by Kristen Wiig, first seen staring, uncomprehendingly, at a push-button phone in the bustling offices of GNN, a newfangled 24-hour news network in Manhattan. The time is 1980 or thereabouts. A lot of the jokes riffing on "Ghostbusters" and the like push "Anchorman 2" further into the '80s, but this isn't The History Channel. For the record, in the sequel's epic follow-up to the anchorman melee of the first film, The History Channel is well represented by a famous actor, one of many recruited for this sequence.
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That scene works, though it does come late in a nearly two-hour picture, 20 or so minutes longer than the first.
The old gang's back, including sports analyst Champ Kind (David Koechner) and investigative horndog Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd). Meagan Good plays Burgundy's GNN overseer and new love interest, and here we come to an interesting question of tone-deafness. When does a comedy cross the line separating the depiction of boorish/sexist/racist/homophobic/whatever behavior and the tacit endorsement thereof? In "Anchorman 2" there's a weirdly unfunny sequence when Good's character takes Burgundy home for dinner and Burgundy can't stop with the jive talk, and the longer it goes on — and the more McKay clunks it up with reaction shots — the less it clicks.
The script sets up a challenge for itself: What if Burgundy is thrown into a fit of pique almost immediately? Right off, Burgundy is fired while his now-wife and co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), ascends to national news. Burgundy takes the development poorly, leaving the family, moving back to San Diego to work, unsuccessfully, at Sea World. The movie's about two things: how Burgundy sparks a trash-TV revolution in televised news, and how he makes his family — including a preteen son (Judah Nelson) — whole again.
Now and then, "Anchorman 2" takes a stab at satiric commentary about the current state of cable news. Burgundy scores a success in his graveyard 2 a.m. shift when he transforms, essentially, into Sean Hannity, signing off his reports with: "Don't just have a great night. … Have an American night." The movie goes only so far in this direction, but McKay and Ferrell have always believed in a rangy sort of comedy, high, medium and low, all smooshed together. "Anchorman 2" isn't much, compared with the more compact and nimble "Anchorman 1." All the same, I'll take it over such tidy soul-suckers as "We're the Millers" or "Identity Thief."
"Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comic violence)
Running time: 1:59