When Zucker, Abrams and Zucker created the hilarious (and influential) “Airplane!,” they filled the screen with a rapid-fire rat-a-tat of sight gags, puns, parodies, absurdities and pratfalls. Yet underneath it all, the writer-directors maintained a skeletal story on which to hang all their wackiness, even if they’d lifted the plot from the vintage, mostly forgotten disaster movie “Zero Hour!”
With “Anchorman” and especially with its sequel, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” director Adam McKay, co-writer Will Ferrell and a cast of talented comedians bring all the rat-a-tat you could ever want without bothering to create any kind of structure. And while you might not think a framework is important to comedy, it’s the sort of thing you don’t notice until it isn’t there.
Ferrell reprises his role as idiotic and vain newsreader Ron Burgundy, and as the film begins, it looks like he and wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) have it all — they’ve left San Diego for New York City, where they co-anchor the weekend network news and are raising a son in a sumptuous brownstone.
When the legendary Mack Harken (Harrison Ford, given little to do or say that’s particularly funny) steps down from the network’s main anchor desk, Ron thinks it’s a big break for him and his wife, but he’s only half-right: She gets the gig, and he gets the boot. Drunk, self-pitying and back in San Diego introducing dolphin shows at Sea World, Ron gets another shot: a millionaire tycoon is starting a 24-hour cable news network, and the startup wants Ron.
Ron reunites his usual gang of idiots — sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), ladies’ man Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and barely-functioning weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) — and prepares to take New York by storm again. Upon arrival, however, Ron learns that tough-as-nails network exec Linda (Meagan Good) has relegated him to the graveyard shift while prime time goes to the glossy and charismatic Jack Lime (James Marsden).
“Anchorman 2” has a surfeit of funny ideas, from Ron single-handedly inventing almost every awful idea in cable news (car-chase coverage, knee-jerk patriotism, weathermen standing in the middle of hurricanes) to clever tweaking of the chronology (it’s supposed to be 1980, but the movie subtly throws in anachronistic references to Trivial Pursuit and “Ghostbusters”). Audiences who have spent the last nine years quoting the original will no doubt come away with a whole arsenal of new lines and situations to add to their repertoire.
With all the talent on hand, and such a rich comic set-up, I can’t help wishing that “Anchorman 2” weren’t so flimsy. It’s a constant barrage of joke-joke-joke, but they’re all gags that take place in the moment and are immediately shoved aside for the next one. Nothing builds. There are no setups for later payoffs.
In a five- or ten-minute comedy sketch, that’s perfectly fine, but it’s not a formula for the long haul of a feature. If this were “Idiocracy,” it would just be “Ow! My balls!” over and over again for 119 minutes. (Extended running time no doubt thanks to producer Judd “Leave it in!” Apatow.)
It’s also a pity that McKay and Ferrell couldn’t figure out more for the women in the movie to do — Applegate spends most of the movie off-screen, Good gets relegated to reaction shots and even Kristin Wiig’s turn as the one woman in the world mentally impaired enough to be Brick Tamland’s soulmate feels more like a one-note rehearsal than an actual character.
(“Anchorman 2” also suffers the sequel’s curse of “do it again, but bigger,” particularly in a climactic showdown that recalls the first film’s local-news rumble.)
Perhaps the film’s biggest miscalculation is its insistence that Ron realize the error of his ways and attempt to become an actual journalist. Does anyone really want to see Ron Burgundy learn his lesson?
If we’re grading “Anchorman 2” for the sheer number of jokes, or even by the percentage of those jokes that land, it’s a success. It’s just too bad that the entire enterprise feels as disposable as yesterday’s news.