Ron Burgundy and the Sorry State of Journalism

I didn't expect Anchorman 2 to be something the first Anchorman was not at all: a relevant, and dare I even say intelligent, satire on the state of news reporting in the US.

I’ve seen hundreds of movies in my life, and while the details of when and where I see them often blend together in my memory, I can still tell you where I was and who I was with when I first saw Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It came out the summer I graduated high school, and it made a big impact on me right away. I couldn’t remember ever laughing quite so hard and so genuinely at a movie before.

Outside of the very best of Monty Python, I had never experienced a mainstream comedy blatantly unapologetic about being so completely bonkers. Case in point: the famous brawl scene, where Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Co. meet their rivals from other local news stations in a violent confrontation in an abandoned parking lot. That scene alone was funny enough, but it was the scene afterwards, where Ron and the guys debrief about the fight back in the Channel 4 News offices that took the joke so far past absurd that it became rational again. It was that kind of commitment to insanity that made Anchorman revelatory.

Anchorman never meant to be more than a stupid little movie, but it was a stupid little movie that became so popular that eventually you could spout off 80 percent of the script without ever actually having seen it. It still remains one of the most easily quotable films, and it cemented Ferrell as a leading man in comedy. Through the years, we’ve seen him play a lot of similar man-child characters, but they’ve all been little more than cheap imitations of Ron Burgundy.

It took almost a decade for a sequel to Anchorman to come out, and after such a long time, expectations were indeed high. Sequels in general are tough to make, comedy sequels even harder. Half of them don’t really need to see the light of day.

I expected Anchorman 2 to be hilarious, of course, and stupid, irreverent, with the same brand of unashamed zaniness. And it is all of those things, in abundance. What I did not expect, however, was for Anchorman 2 to be something the first Anchorman was not at all: a relevant, and dare I even say intelligent, satire on the state of news reporting in the US. Where Anchorman 1 was nothing more than just a really goofy movie lampooning not so much news reporters as men who think too highly of themselves, Anchorman 2 takes numerous potshots at the ridiculousness of ratings-driven 24-hour news cycles. Surprisingly, underneath all of his apparent shallowness, it turns out Ron Burgundy actually has some depth.

Plot-wise, not much happens here that didn’t happen in the first Anchorman. When Ron loses his job as head anchor of the national nightly news in Manhattan to his wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), his ego can’t take it and he runs out on her and his young son, Walter (Judah Nelson). Six months later, he is approached by Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker), a producer at a new 24-hour news station, the Global News Network (GNN- sound vaguely familiar?).

The station is owned by Australian airline owner Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson), and is something of an experiment. Ron scoffs at the idea at first, but after glancing his first paycheck, quickly changes his mind. Before he can start, however, he has to round up his trusty news team: reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell).

When the team members are told they will be premiering in the 2am-5am time slot, the graveyard shift, they are at first greatly upset by the slight. But Ron soon realizes that this deserted time of day actually affords them more freedom. At a planning meeting before their first broadcast, Ron hits on an idea. Fearing the news is too boring, he says, “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?”

Shapp and the rest believe he is on to something, so Ron starts off his first broadcast at GNN by boldly proclaiming, “Too much of the news is about what’s wrong with America. Well, tonight our top story is what’s right with America. For starters, we kick butt.” The rest of their broadcast is equally trifling: how windy it is outside, an excessive montage of baseball athletes slamming home runs, and an “exclusive” report on famous female body parts. It ends with the “eighth and final animal news story of the night,” a puppy playing in a yard of American flags.

Despite reservations about how this new trend in news is against everything they believe in as journalists, GNN can’t deny that it’s a wonder for ratings. It’s not long before the Channel 4 News Team is headlining the prime time slot and crushing the competition in the ratings. Of course, all of this goes to Ron’s head, and after a fall from grace, abandonment by his friends, and a struggle with temporary blindness (because why not?), he eventually has to redeem himself by choosing his family and friends above his career.

At 119 minutes, Anchorman 2 seems at times almost too long, as if Ferrell and director Adam McKay couldn’t let enough of their ideas go and tried to stuff as many varying plotlines as they could into two hours. Half-hearted subplots like an office romance between Brick and a female co-worker (Kristen Wiig), a brief dalliance between Ron and his boss Linda Jackson (Meagan Good, played for laughs due to Ron’s insensitivities towards Linda’s race), and Ron’s nurturing of a captured shark while living in a lighthouse, are all short-lived enough to give the randomness the effect of a peculiar lucid dream.

The filmmakers clearly also felt an obligation to revisit as many old gags as they could, including a reappearance by Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn) and another anchor brawl, with more or less more of the same jokes as the first time around. The film even ends with Baxter, Ron’s faithful dog, shamefully relegated to nonexistence for most of the movie, saving Ron from an animal attack.

What’s different this time around is that Ferrell and McKay have their fingers on the pulse of a real problem with American news reporting. Really, the release of Anchorman 2 on Blu-Ray and DVD couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. When Ron Burgundy’s old boss Ed Harken (Fred Willard) hears about the new 24-hour news station, he asks, “How are they gonna keep coming up with this stuff?” His assistant Garth (Chris Parnell) replies, “My guess is they’ll probably be scraping the bottom of the barrel.” Harken sighs and says, “No, I have a feeling they’ll stick with their integrity and only report the news that needs to be reported.”

Anyone who watches an American news report for more than ten minutes knows how tongue-in-cheek this comment is. There are practically more YouTube clips and animal videos than on the Internet itself.

Not more than a week ago, this ratings-obsessed news craze came under fire by real-life funny anchorman Jon Stewart, who blasted the absurdity of CNN’s incessant media coverage of missing Malaysian airlines flight MH370. Black holes, supernatural phenomena, and psychics were all speculated on having a role in the disappearance. Mentioning the fact that Fox News, another 24-hour news network, also criticized CNN’s over-coverage, Stewart quipped, “You better be careful, O’Reilly! Or Fox’s coverage of CNN’s over-coverage will be covered… by CNN!” And then showed another clip of that exact thing: CNN commentators responding to Fox News’s coverage of their over-coverage. The entire thing would have been funny if it wasn’t so painful.

One of the most insightful sequences of Anchorman 2 brings this entire debacle to mind. Hoping to give GNN the edge during sweeps week, Ron asks for a live satellite feed of a car chase taking place in Milwaukee. “Can’t you see what the son of a bitch is doing?” Linda says to Shapp. “We didn’t have a story, so he made one!” To heighten the tension, Ron speculates about the circumstances of the chase: “We believe the driver may be on drugs, he’s probably 6’7”, 6’8”, he may have a hostage or two.” At one point, the driver hits another car and Ron yells, “He hit a car! He hit a car! Did you see that? That was exactly what we needed! It was getting a little boring!” As Americans across the country react, one person exclaims, “When did the news get awesome?”

Car chases, animal hijinks, celebrity break-ups, and other things that are “awesome.” This is what qualifies as “news” these days. But by the end of the film, even Ron realizes that what he’s doing is unethical. Burgundy might have some flaws (okay, a lot of flaws), but one thing you can’t say about the guy is that he doesn’t love the news.

When first hearing about GNN, Ron agrees by stating that me must do the “thing that God put Ron Burgundy on this Earth to do: have salon-quality hair, and read the news.” This single-minded devotion to his craft makes Ron a buffoon, yes, but at least he’s a buffoon with a moral center, which is more than we can say for most of the journalists at work these days. Ron Burgundy may be seen as a joke of an anchorman, but news reporters and media outlets of the world could do much worse than taking a page out of his book.

Special features: The first Anchorman film had so much extra footage that didn’t make the final cut of the film that they produced an entirely new 93-minute movie completely of outtakes, called Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. The Blu-Ray and DVD version of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues proves that that could very likely happen again. Alongside the original theatrical version, there’s also an unrated version, a “Super-Sized R-rated version”, plus over 90 minutes of deleted scenes, extended and alternate scenes, “Line-O-Ramas”, and gag reels.

On a film like this, when improvisation is such an important part of the creative process, these special features provide an invaluable window into how the film came together. Plus, it’s just really fun to see Paul Rudd completely lose it when Ferrell lobs a line at him he wasn’t expecting at all. Scenes from the cast table read and original Anchorman audition footage, including Amy Poehler reading for the original role of “Alicia Corningstone,” are also insightful, but probably only to die-hard Anchorman fanatics.

RATING 7 / 10