Shades of Burgundy
With the possible exception of an American horror movie, I am less likely to see an American comedy than any other type of film. This is mainly because it seems to me that the funny American film is in a state of advanced homogeneity, with all of them sharing the same sort of tone and approach, not to mention the fact that they draw upon the same very familiar pool of actors. Nearly every major release seems to be produced by Judd Apatow, as well. None of this would be a problem if it were a kind of homogeneity I actually had much time for. But I don't. So there you are.
However, if we're looking at it in those terms, I shouldn't really have enjoyed Adam McKay's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy back in 2004, because it is a very broad Apatow-produced comedy featuring various members of the usual crowd – Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and so on. And yet I really liked it; enough to buy the DVD (albeit using a money-off voucher), enough to be mildly pleased at the announcement of a sequel, and – apparently – enough to actually go and see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (Though the fact they shot a bespoke commercial to run before the Doctor Who 50th anniversary show may also have been a point in the film's favour.)
Comedy sequels tend to be pretty odd beasts – the whole basis of a sequel is essentially 'more of the same', but repetition is, of course, the death of comedy. Long-running comedy franchises tend to be based around characters who can go anywhere and do anything, either as individuals or ensembles. Anchorman is, you would have thought, fairly limited by the fact that it's about a newsreader. So how does the new film perform?
After some scene-setting shenanigans, the story proper opens with a clinically upset Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) on the skids and on the bottle, working at a sea-life park. Once a journalistic titan, Ron is in a bad way, his personal and professional lives both having fallen apart. However, hope glimmers when he is offered a spot on America's first 24-hour news channel – is this a chance to re-forge the legend of Ron Burgundy?
Well, of course it is, provided he can reassemble his crack news team of sports reporter Champ (David Koechner), roving investigator Brian (Paul Rudd), and semi-sentient weatherman Brick (Steve Carell). What follows is essentially a relentless shotgun satire directed against any hapless target that wanders into range: fast food restaurants, cat photographs, race relations, rolling news channels, Australian media tycoons, and so on, interspersed with character bits for Ron and his team.
I was watching the first Anchorman on TV the other night and, as usual, trying to work out what made it so funny – was it the loving pastiche of 70s values and fashions? Was it the deadpan skills of the performers? Was it the fact that – despite the film not being scripted as such, but improvised by a gang of people messing about in front of a camera – it was built on a firm structural basis? And then I realised it was none of the above. Both the original Anchorman and the new one are funny because they are knowingly, defiantly, enormously silly.
Most of this film is simply ludicrous on every level – but it's a knowing sort of ludicrousness, one that's carefully judged and not all that far from actually being ironic. There's a sight gag about Ron bottle-feeding a... no, better not spoil it, not to mention another scene where an astonishingly big-name star in an uncredited cameo turns into a... no, don't want to spoil that one either. I usually avoid movie comparisons like the plague (I have people on the payroll to do that kind of thing for me, after all), but there are scenes in Anchorman 2 which would not seem entirely out of place in a Monty Python project.
However, what is telling is that the producers have a very strong idea about what their real strengths are: Ferrell and most of the others are consistently amusing, but it's telling that when the film feels the need to get really big laughs, it wheels on Steve Carell as Brick Tamblyn. Carell is, by a very long way, the funniest thing in an extremely funny film – one is almost tempted to wonder how long it will be before Brick gets his own spin-off movie, but I'm not sure the character would support one. One of the less successful plotlines in Anchorman 2 sees Brick embark on a torrid romance with the equally brain-dead Chani (Kristen Wiig), and the results are more weird than consistently funny: Wiig almost seems to be trying to find some emotional reality in her character, as opposed to the glazed inscrutability that makes Carell's performance so hilarious, and it does feel as if scenes from a very off-beat art-house movie have been spliced in by accident.
What's slightly surprising, given how riotously absurd most of the story is, is that this actually seems to be a film attempting to make serious points about the modern media: there is a lot of satire of the news networks and the fact that they are making news much more than simply broadcasting it; the populist and conservative bias of most of these channels comes in for some heavy stick as well. This is not done with an especially light touch, and this gives some parts of the film an almost preachy quality which I wasn't sure I cared for. Then Brick came on again and made me laugh until I hyperventilated, so that was okay.
Even so, there's a third act segment which felt to me like a genuine misjudgement – earlier in the film there are some slightly edgy gags about attitudes to race and domestic violence, but the whole point of them is that Ron and his friends share stupidly unreconstructed values. We're laughing at them, not at jokes about punching women or all coloured people being drug dealers. Later on, though, there's an extended series of jokes about disability which didn't seem to have that quality of distance which made them acceptably ironic. It's not that big a deal, and the circumstances involved are as ridiculous as the rest of the movie, but it's still a distinct wobble.
Nevertheless, this is still a very funny comedy. It reminded me a lot of the second Austin Powers film, in that it's largely a more confident and more polished version of the original, with the key moments and gags you remember from the first one being retooled and expanded upon this time around. That proved to be a very limited strategy when it came to producing a long-running franchise, of course, and I can imagine McKay and Ferrell thinking very carefully about whether to return to these characters yet again. For the time being, though, that's not a problem: Anchorman 2 is as inventive and as charmingly deranged as its predecessor.