Contemporary American studio comedies are in a peculiarly formless state. Whether it be the homilies to aging/love/responsibility of Judd Apatow and his progeny, or the incoherent juvenilia of Dennis Dugan and Adam Sandler, the films themselves have become laborious affairs, overlong and without definition. Visual humor seems a failing art for multiplex comedy, at best making an appearance once or twice in a film, rather than driving it. Adam McKay’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is similarly disfigured, but unlike the films mentioned above, this is partly by design.
The cinema of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, while generally linked through a unity of plot-disruptive absurdity, has gradually begun to make sense of itself. McKay, a director of closet-seriousness with his half-hearted attempts at satire, and Farrell, a wildly gesticulative performer, form an odd, not entirely fluid collaboration. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Step Brothers (2008) function largely on the breakdown of structure, both of plot and gags. As outlined here, the comedy rejects the idea of landing jokes, failure being the ultimate source of comedy. It’s an abrasive route to laughter, relying on shrill flubbings or awkward mumblings of lines. Sequences of “plot” will be continuously interrupted in favor of nonsensical diversions, and gags often run past their ideal length. Their 2010 film The Other Guys saw a more linear approach to both storytelling and comedy; it’s there that McKay revealed his undercooked satirical edge, attempting a critique of Wall Street while lampooning the buddy cop genre.
Anchorman 2 finds the collaboration at an interesting crossroads, attempting a media satire while broadly appealing to the anarchic tone of the first film. Anchorman 2 follows the continued exploits of local television news anchor Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), who departs San Diego (after losing his job) and finds himself the unwitting creator of the sensationalist news cycle after he is hired by a 24-hour network in New York City. Jokes are revisited, older gags trotted out at varying levels of success. However, the collaborators’ craft and aggression has sharpened with time. The Other Guys’ funeral brawl introduced deft physical comedy into their work, and Anchorman 2 capitalizes on this. Rather than merely covering the actors, McKay is beginning to understand the interaction between form and performance in terms of comedic effect. Although inconsistent in its formal presentation, the film benefits from the performers familiarity with each others’ rhythms and modulations, and McKay to theirs, allowing for greater interaction with each other and the film as a whole. In a highlight, we visit the shared apartment of Ron and his news team buddies. An establishing wide shot quickly conveys the comfortability of their shared presence; Paul Rudd’s blundering weight lifting links winningly with Ferrell’s loping pontification, while Steve Carell comes into his own as an agent of randomized chaos. The sequence then settles into a series of medium shots, each performer paired with a painting of their likeness, in comically bold, Pop art hues. The splaying of the film’s outrageous color finds its graphic strength against the apartment’s white walls. It’s a moment of visual synchronicity that is largely absent from McKay's pre-The Other Guys work, environment and character reflecting one another literally. The first film, while replete with nonsensical throwaways, never landed a comparable moment of visual wit.
McKay and Ferrell revisit their apparent favorite gag from the previous Anchorman: the all-out brawl, in which various San Diego news teams squared off in random, violent battle. The first film’s edition gained its power sheerly through its random genesis and truly cartoonish violence. The sequel takes the basic tenants (celebrity cameos, aforementioned violence), but makes a bolder arrhythmic choice, placing the sequence in the supposed climax of the film. What should be a moment of narrative clarity, as this fight occurs at the climax of the film, is instead a sacrificed for a revisiting of the first film—what was a diversion is here centralized. It may follow the general McKay-Ferrell mode of disruption, but the comedy feels different now, more outlandish and willfully misplaced. These throwaways are no longer deposited at throwaway moments. What results is a comedy that pivots around non sequiturs. If anything, the first Anchorman is beginning to look modest in the context of their developing style.
Whether the sequel truly works is ambiguous. The satirical elements, if occasionally accurate, never find a solid through line. The narrative does possess a momentum absent from the first film, the gags bustling against each other more restlessly. The colors pop, and McKay’s frames are continuing to develop beyond default coverage. If McKay and Ferrell are a collaboration of over-proliferation, operating seemingly without filter, then they’ve become better at finding the grace notes in their partnership.