[5 June 2014]
‘Anchorman 2’ is bigger, bolder, brasher and more bizarre than its antecedent, but it also gives a pertinent critique of the medium it has chosen to satirise.
There’s a reason why few comedies have sequels. Good sequels, anyway. There’s always the odd exception to the rule.
One could cite the second Austin Powers film as a better execution of the self-aware ‘60s Bond spoof that the original promised, and the second Star Wars prequel was hilarious (full disclosure: my coping mechanism is to treat all George Lucas films post-1990 as farce). Too often, though, you get examples like The Hangover 2 or Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, which just retell their jokes, but broader, and to diminishing effect.
By the time you are up in the Police Academy 6 and Blues Brothers 2000 territory, whatever comic potential was in the original text has not only run dry, but the well has been poisoned, the earth has been salted, and the dead have been strung up as a warning to passers-by (a practice still less vile and disturbing than Son of the Mask).
Most times it’s because the sequel breaks one of the first and most fundamental rules of comedy: never overstay your welcome. To be overly simplistic about it, a joke told well has a natural lifespan: a set-up, an execution, and a natural resolve. Humour requires room to riff, of course – to iterate and expand upon its premise – but brevity is the soul of wit. If the joke already landed, then you don’t need to tell it again; and if you’ve left so much room in a gag that it requires an entire other film in order to fill it in properly, then chances are you didn’t tell it right in the first place.
It’s for this reason that when the sequel to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) was initially announced, many fans of the first film braced themselves for disappointment. Good comedy sequels are so infrequent, and the first film was such a peculiar case of lightning in a bottle, that you didn’t have to be Hipster McCynicton to have a voice whispering in your head that this could well be another watered down rehash set to tarnish the unique charm of its predecessor.
For those who weren’t fans of the original film, who looked upon it as a complete mystery, this fear might seem completely ridiculous. Isn’t it near impossible to screw up an Anchorman sequel, they might ask. After all, wasn’t the first one just a series of obtuse abstractions and nonsense awkwardly strung together in a hackneyed fall-from-grace redemption story? To which fans of the film (such as myself) would respond: Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it was. And precisely why it was so ingenious.
Happily its sequel – fully aware both of its comedy legacy and the difficulty of returning to a joke already told – folds this meta-knowledge baggage into itself, expanding upon the social commentary begun in its first installment. It turns itself into a myth, bigger, bolder, brasher and more bizarre than its antecedent, but with a far more pertinent critique of the medium it has chosen to satirise.
One of Will Ferrell’s strengths as a comedian is the seemingly effortless way that he can marry the grandiose with the inane. He will have his characters, in moments of shock or pain cry, ‘By the beard of Zeus!’ or ‘Great Odin’s Raven!’ or ‘Knights of Columbus that hurt!’ He describes a dog dispensing emotional advice (who had just gotten finished pooping in his fridge) as a hairy little Buddha. Step Brothers contains the pronouncement, ‘I would follow you into the mists of Avalon’, and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby begins with the epigraph: ‘America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed,’ a quote it attributes to Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936.
Although an exceptional actor with a deceptively broad range, Ferrell has become most famous for characters that similarly embody extreme dualities: emotionally arrested man-children playacting adulthood, hyperactively enthused dullards, posturing fools. Ron Burgundy, the titular ‘anchorman’ of the series, is a distilment of all of these contradictions.
The quintessential blustering, ignorant narcissist, Burgundy, despite being tasked with the solemn duty to report the news, was little more than a glorified loudhailer. He symbolised the move away from figures like Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite – actual reporters who delivered stories they were instrumental in producing – toward polished ‘broadcasters’, figures valued more for their ability to enunciate properly and project gravitas, rather than possessing any actual journalistic skill. A news reader rather than news man.
In the first film, Ron’s lack of depth and self-awareness is an excuse to dig beneath Burgundy’s vacuous entitlement, to use him as the emblem of an antiquated, sexist world view that needed to be shaken up. In the sequel, it’s symbolic of something far more frightening.
Not all that surprisingly then, looked at in isolation, the first Anchorman is probably funnier than its sequel. As a straight up comedy, the original has the perfect blend of novelty, surprise, and genuine exploration that makes a comedy sing. There’s a sense of unbridled glee and potentiality in every non sequitur and aside. Characters break into song or slide into a sexual cartoon interlude. Newsmen can be summoned by blowing on a conch shell, and brown bears have a secret society that befriends heroic, wandering terriers.
Meanwhile, Ron’s capacity to undercut a moment of surreal delusion with reality (‘Brian, I’m going to be honest with you: that smells like straight up gasoline’) is still testing the borders of this plastic universe; the narrative could swing wildly and inexplicably, from giddy excess to quiet normality and back again, each time taking the audience by surprise. Consequentially, one of the most iconic moments of the first film was the dramatic smash cut from a bloody street brawl to those same characters, having somehow escaped the carnage, sipping beers and reminiscing about how weird that whole mess was: ‘Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.’
Anchorman is filled with these kinds of illuminating misdirects – gags that its surreal, free associative excess employed to grand effect for laughs, or even to pack an unexpected narrative punch. Perhaps the most impactful, if subtle, example of the elegance beneath the stupidity was the way in which the film stripped out all of its bad language.
Ron curses throughout the first half of the film in a Mad Lib blender of Norse mythology and body parts; Veronica, despite being surrounded by incompetence and sexism can only manage to bluster that the outrage she is suffering is ‘Baloney!’; but this curiously watered down swearing is all so that when a real profanity is uttered – ‘Go fuck yourself, San Diego’ – it has exactly the right punch. It blindsides the audience. The artful facade that the film had crafted – the comfortable, predictable space that it had subconsciously established – is ruptured by the buffoon at its centre. It’s played for a laugh, but the audience shares the blasphemous jolt that reverberated through the fiction.
Most importantly however, this misdirection was a pivotal component of the ultimate message (such as it was) of the film. Because at its heart, Anchorman was ultimately a story concerned with gender inequality. Despite the advertising material and title of the film claiming to be the story of Ron Burgundy – the best damned newsreader who ever shook his magnificently coifed mane at a camera lens – in truth, the narration, the broad characters, the whole swaggering tone of the film was just one elaborate misdirect.
It was really about Veronica Corningstone – a woman struggling to break through the glass ceiling of the KVWN Channel 4 newsroom. It was a broad comic spectacle, but what it was skewering was the arbitrary patriarchy that had propagated, without justification, for generations:
Veronica: Mr. Burgundy, you are acting like a baby.
Ron: I’m not a baby, I am a man. I am an anchorman.
Veronica: You are not a man. You are a big fat joke.
Ron: I’m a man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn. That’s what kind of man I am. You’re just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of us. It’s science.
Ron’s a relic of the past, a representative of the history that claimed to have made the wheel and built towers, but that was now standing in the way of any further innovation and growth. As the bartender played by Danny Trejo states, when Ron is at his emotional nadir:
You know times are changing. Ladies can do stuff now. nd you’re going to have to learn how to deal with that.
And so Ron and his companions—a preened, facile, self-involved, boozing boy’s club; the embodiments of image without substance – were going to finally have their cosseted haven shaken by the introduction of a woman, a talented professional who had to overcome the prejudice and marginalisation she faced in order to do her work – even if her menstruation, they feared, could very well attract bears.
Coming up After the Break…
Going into a sequel, it’s not as easy to surprise an audience, and by the point of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, as is true of most every comedy franchise, the barometer for the universe’s nonsense had already been calibrated. Consequentially, Anchorman 2 immediately shows an awareness of this truth. The restrictions on swearing are immediately abandoned.
Familiar jokes are expanded or iterated upon: Brian has a condom collection now as a substitute for his man-musk museum; Ron confronts a shark rather than a bear in the conclusion; Vince Vaughn’s character just shows up with little to no explanation; the newscaster brawl of the first film is ...escalated. The film knows that it can’t surprise in the way that it did the first time, but it can build upon its own history and put it to good use, comically, narratively, and thematically.
Perhaps the moment most symbolic of this escalation ironically comes from the character with the least capacity to grow. If you’ve been alive in the past ten years, you know that one of the most over-quoted lines from the first movie (aside from ‘I ate a big red candle’, or ‘I love lamp’, or, who am I kidding, everything other single thing that he says), is Brick Tamland’s enthused recollection: ‘I killed a guy with a trident.’
In the midst of an utterly tangential fight scene between rival newscasters, Brick (played by Steve Carell) had pulled out a trident and flung it into the torso of another human being – who was riding a horse – making it the zenith of the scene’s escalating lunacy. In the sequel however, when round two of this battle plays out, not only does the trident return, but Brick and his companions find themselves fighting an actual minotaur on a battlefield ripped with explosions and carnage.
They are even trumpeted into action by some kind of nonspecific mythic deity – El Trousia, Maiden of the Clouds. This trident moves from a random, ornamental piece of glorified cutlery in a back alley scuffle, to confirmation that the creatures of Greek mythology and legend are real.
Having taken the first film’s romanticised tone, in which Burgundy’s story was recounted as though it were a defining American folk tale in the tradition of Paul Bunyun and Johnny Appleseed (‘The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ was literally the film’s subtitle), the sequel goes even further, repeatedly attempting to write Burgundy and company into the pantheon of mythology.
At the moment that Ron is shown to be indulging his ego too much, losing sight of his journalistic principles and turning his back on his friends, he is described by the narrator as being like Icarus. As the film declares, in the myth, Icarus, dizzy with the sin of pride, flew too close to the sun on manufactured wings; and Ron too, carried aloft by hubris, is described as having ascended only to fall. ...That, or he skated over a stray microphone cord while dressed like Siegfried, Roy, or one of the tigers.
Similarly, after his accident, when he finds that he is blind, he is likewise presented in relation to a figure from myth. As he screams for answers, wondering what will now become of his life now that he is a disabled social pariah, his doctor informs him that he might find profitable employment as an oracle or a mystic. He becomes, effectively, Tiresias from Oedipus Rex. And given that he does eventually operate as a soothsayer of the horrors that cable news will one day inflict upon the fourth estate, this joke is chillingly prescient.
Ultimately, however, although this name is never cited in the film, Burgundy’s story aligns with that of another mythic hero: Prometheus. His is the Promethean story of stealing fire to deliver to the mortals – only tragically inverted. Rather than bringing light and enlightenment to the masses, he perfects a means of allowing them to wallow in complacent ignorance. He gives them the news you feel. News that, in this model, is no longer about informing people, but indulging them.
Rather than challenging them with new thought, he mirrors back to them their preconceptions, fuelling their paranoias, and in so doing, personifies the descent in pursuit of ratings that would impact all news media:
Ron: I just don’t know why we have to tell the people what they need to hear. Why can’t we just tell them what they want to hear?
Freddie: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Say that again
Ron: I said, why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why can’t we just tell them what they want to hear?
Freddie: And what do they want to hear, Ron?
Ron: That we live in the greatest country God ever created.
Champ: Damn straight!
Freddie: Made him happy.
Ron: And we should do stories on – on patriots. Cute, funny little animals. Or diets. Why blondes have more fun.
Brian: And serious investigative pieces… about how much ejaculate is on hotel duvets.
Champ: And only the best sports highlights. Home runs, slam dunks, touchdowns. And no soccer.
Brick: I like the wind.
Ron: Brick’s right. People love hurricanes. Tornadoes, earthquakes, floods. We’ll throw Brick right in the middle of it.
What Anchorman 2 is satirising in its return goes beyond just eliciting laughter. In this expansion, from a series of surreal gags to a franchise aware of its own mythos, Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay are no longer merely belittling the dying of a juvenile, patriarchal age; here they are critiquing another pernicious stupidity that has developed in its wake: the degradation of the news media itself, and its drift into reactionary, sensationalist drivel.
As the movie goes on to argue, in its admittedly exaggerated (but sadly not by much) fashion: news itself has become myth. Rather than striving to remain objective, or vowing to interrogate the complexity of the issues upon which it reports, too frequently modern television news broadcasters (and particularly the cable news networks this film specifically attacks) trade in simplified narratives of sensation and spectacle.
The patterns are so commonplace, so engrained, that they become mere variations on familiar themes: tales of good and evil; heroes and bag guys; republican and democrat; celebrities reported upon as either gods walking amongst us or animals on display in a zoo. Action thrills! Outrage! Rumour! Opinion! ynamic weather footage! Shouting heads lost in a vacuum of partisan rhetoric.
Whereas conventional television wisdom was once that if it bleeds it leads (usually with a soothing, feel-good, cat-up-a-tree palate cleanser to round it out), now ‘news’ is a desperate drip-feed of stories made up on the fly, a context-free sprawl of ‘updates’ and ‘this just ins’ and conjecture; journalists scanning twitter feeds and arbitrarily crossing ‘live to the street’ to interview passers-by about what they think. In its move from a researched, digested bulletin to a reactionary, 24-hour race for perpetual exclusivity, modern television news has sacrificed content for controversy, sense for scandal, sanity for sound bites.
So yeah, Ron Burgundy fights a minotaur (and for some reason, the soul-sucking ghost of Stonewall Jackson), because he too has entered this world of myth, and in doing so has potentially doomed us all.
Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?!
And now just let me limber up. Let me stretch. Because I am about to try to justify the impossible: a precocious child in a comedy film.
Because despite being two things that theoretically should never go together (see: Three Men and a Little Lady for more comedy sequel ‘success’), the addition of Ron’s son Walter into this comedy is actually one of the most interesting and revealing additions to the narrative. (And it must be said, despite my cynicism, the actor, Judah Nelson has some hilarious line deliveries. ‘How about we forget about this whole name thing and you go straight to hell,’ was particularly sublime.)
Superficially, Walter appears to be just a cheap attempt by the film to manufacture some cheesy emotional stakes by exploiting a hackneyed father/son dynamic. Ron, as the bad parent, has to try and reconnect with his estranged son. We’re even given a completely arbitrary ticking clock from a screenwriting 101 course: the will-the-deadbeat-parent-make-it-to-their-child’s-little-league-game/school-play/whatever-in-the-final-act-and-in-one-minute-undo-years-of-shaky-parenting race to the finish line (the film even doubles down on the clichés of absentee parenting, having both a recital and a science fair – including corny model volcano, of course).
But this is the mere tip of the iceberg. Anchorman 2 is intentionally overstuffed with such trite narrative dross, ticking off every lazy narrative trope that cinema has recycled for countless generations. It’s a getting-the-old-team-back-together-again road movie; the tale of an office drone who stands up against the injustice of a scheming boss; a Lifetime drama about a man overcoming a debilitating disability; the story of a young child who befriends a misunderstood wild animal. It’s about an interracial couple that overcomes prejudice (pretty much only his prejudice) to find love; a domestic drama where a man has to win back the love of his wife and child; the tale of a guy who sells his soul for fame, and who eventually has to learn humility to regain the love of family and friends.
If it could only have squeezed in a team-of-misfits-overcome-their-personal-problems-to-win-the-big-game’ storyline, it may have filled the entire formulaic cinema Bingo card.
Anchorman 2 parades every filmic convention it can cram into its two hour span not out of idleness (the fact that it can juggle all this at once is quite extraordinary), but because it is making a pointed statement. This, it is saying, is precisely where such simplified clichés belong. Movies are where we can allow ourselves to indulge these lazy impulses toward myth and redundancy; where Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey can be recycled to infinitely dwindling reward; where we can end on the ‘Happily Ever After’ of a white linen beach wedding scene (and shark mauling).
In contrast, news is where we should strive for something significantly more: where there are no easy answers, and people don’t fit into pre-packaged narrative slots. The news is not the place to fall back into lazy convention.
More than just a signifier for this narrative recycling, the appearance of Walter also invites us to dwell a little longer on Ron’s responsibilities, not just as a parent, but as a teacher. Because, Walter – beyond being the source of some intentionally contrived pathos – is a literal representative of the future. He is the next generation of viewers – of thinkers, of contributors to society – who are growing up in wake of this shift toward insipid infotainment.
Indeed, given that this film is set in the past, Walter is theoretically fully grown in the time that we are watching this film in the present. He is, in fact, us. And here he is in the past, as we were, about to be raised by a media that indulges all his worst traits and ignores his best interests – that wills him to be ill-informed, overly-reactive and convinced of his own righteousness.
Ron, until his 11th-hour reformation (and let’s face it, clearly even afterward) is a bad parent, but he’s also a bad medium. He is the literalised embodiment of all that is facile, synergised and co-opted in the news broadcasting realm: the anchorman with a trustworthy baritone and a slick suit, more interested in selling than telling the story, with nothing behind the facade.
Thankfully, at the end of Anchorman 2, inspired by the newfound responsibility he feels toward his son, Ron abandons the freak show style of broadcast news that he has founded. He quits on air, flees the studio, and in so doing, initiates the sequels most iconic and bombastic set-piece: an amplification of the battle of the news teams glimpsed in the first film.
Here, in its final, goofy battle, again trading on its own history, Anchorman 2 goes all out, ramping up the nonsense as high as it can manage. It indulges nonsensical, pandering cameos and call backs – appearances from Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Liam Neeson, Will Smith, and a transformation effect on Harrison Ford’s appearance that was joyously ramshackle. It’s filled with hockey sticks and ninjas and mortars and Werehyenas and weapons from the future; explosions and minotaurs and boyfriends with psychic powers, all so that it can point and say:
This, news media. This is what you look like.
This is how stupid you appear when you devalue yourself for ratings. When you chase fads and indulge spectacle over substance. Confuse shouting with debate. Conflate wild speculation with reasoned assessment. Sell out your integrity to corporate interest. Indulge rhetoric to manufacture controversy, and chase sound bites devoid of context. You look like bickering, compromised idiots, fighting a ridiculous war amongst yourselves.
And most dishearteningly, it’s not even like McKay, Ferrell and company have to stretch the truth that far. When the real world already has CNN hosting interviews with a will.i.am hologram on election night. When shows like Crossfire stage juvenile squabbling and entrenched bias and try to label it ‘debate’. Whenever Fox News runs their ‘Fair and Balanced’ logo or Glenn Beck is in the vicinity of a chalkboard.
When there are ‘Situation Rooms’ and ‘No Spin Zones’ and people playing ‘Hardball’; when daily memos instruct reporters on how their network’s owners want them to slant their coverage, and hosts regurgitate talking points, unfiltered, from press releases. When stations spend months hunting for scraps of plane debris just to milk a tragic mystery, allow Karl Rove and Donald Trump to spout libellous conjecture, or pretend (whether for or against her) that anything retired, one-time vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin says is still relevant to contemporary political debate.
When such a miasma of redundancy and playacting gravitas continues to spin its endless daily news cycle, it’s hard to see why Ron shouting ‘More Graphics!’, live-narrating a car chase as ‘the pulse of what’s going on in our country right now’, or a having El Trousias, Maiden of the Clouds, trumpet the commencement of a news-war, is in any way far-fetched. Hell, even the scene where Ron, Champ and Brian are smoking crack live on the air is barely an exaggeration.
How many intrepid reporters do we need to see trying out what it’s like to be tasered before its assumed that we, the viewer, understand the process? It might garner record YouTube hits, but is it newsworthy?
Well, you know the old expression: ‘Nope.’
Goodnight and Good Luck
The first Anchorman film was a mocking throwback to a less enlightened time, a period in which women were marginalised and ignored; it’s sequel, however, uses its rampant silliness to point out an arguably even greater idiocy. It’s a satire in its truest sense, depicting, even in its most ridiculous, self-indulgent climax, the willing ignorance that we are happily inflicting upon ourselves.
Because as it turns out, one of the biggest jokes in the film is the one that didn’t have to be at all. As GNN goes live for the first time, and audiences around America look on in bemusement, the two station producers from the first film, played by Fred Willard and Chris Parnell, weigh up how successful this new 24 hour enterprise will be:
Ed: Twenty four hours of news? How are they going to keep coming up with this stuff?
Garth: My guess is they’ll probably be scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Ed: No. I have a feeling they’ll stick with their integrity and only report the news that needs to be reported.
It’s funny; but only because it’s so sad.
If you want pandering, the film itself declares, if you want cheap appeals to emotion, then that’s what movies are for. The news, however, should be held to a higher standard. And so Ferrell, twitching his Ron Burgundy moustache with a jester’s faux gravitas, stares out at the news media and calls it to account, daring broadcasters to remember their charter and to treat both their audience, and the public service with which they are tasked, with respect.
‘Goodnight America,’ he says. ‘And never forget: you deserve the truth.’