December 18, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (12/18/2013)

Lettergrade: D

I really didn't like the original Anchorman when I first saw it back in 2004, but I warmed up to it upon subsequent viewings, mostly because several of my friends kept quoting it and would talk about its unsung brilliance. While I can now see a kind of crude genius to the film, I still maintain that it's best seen in small segments on YouTube instead of in one tortuous sitting.

What bothered me about it (and still does a little) is that while there were a lot of funny lines and moments, it really didn't try to be much of a movie. Any sense of cohesion between the various scenes was almost aggressively, defiantly non-existent. I guess there were plot points that would carry on from one scene to the next, but there wasn't really a "plot" itself as much as there was an excuse to put some really funny actors into silly costumes, and to let them riff for a bit.

I didn't take much pleasure in scenes like the following one, where you kind of get the feeling that they had done 30 or 40 takes, and at this point Will Ferrell was just saying whatever random combination of words came into his head while the camera happened to be running:

Anyway, I'm going out of my way to try to describe my evolving relationship with the first movie because I just saw Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on Wednesday, and my feelings about it are a bit similar to how I initially felt about part 1 nine years ago. Some really good laughs in there, but as a movie, it's a garbage-y disaster that doesn't really try to accomplish much. I wonder… will I gradually grow to "sort of" like this one too?

My main thought is that the picture is (ironically) at its worst when it actually does make a faint-hearted attempt at having a plot. The premise, I guess, is that it's 1980 and Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who had teamed up as lovers and as co-anchors of the Channel 4 nightly news in San Diego at the end of the first movie, now have a son. Life is disrupted when Veronica is called up to be a national anchor for the network in New York, and Ron is given the boot altogether. Ron is down and out until he's hired to come to New York himself to work for a new fangled 24 hour cable news station. He rounds up his disbanded news team - Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner), and the scene-stealing Brick Tamland (Steve Carrel) - and heads to NYC to professionally redeem himself and win back his family.

The problem isn't that the movie attempts a premise like this… the problem is that it handles the the "plot" scenes so poorly whenever they come up. As irritated as I can be with scenes that seem utterly purposeless and completely improvised, at least things often happen in them that get a few laughs. The "plot" scenes in this movie almost universally bring the film to a screeching halt and there's little joy to be found in them… as if the film is begrudgingly eating its vegetables whenever it comes time to try to justify its existence.

I understand that I'm complaining about two opposite things here: I can't be annoyed that the movie by and large doesn't really try to do much, and then grouse about the scenes where it actually does, but I guess I'm circling around the main thing that bothers me about these pictures without quite knowing how to articulate it.

The Anchorman movies feel haphazard and slapped together in ways that director Adam McKay's other movies with Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby , Step Brothers and The Other Guys) do not. Talladega Nights is my favorite of those, mainly because it's the one that functions the best as a real movie while still being really funny. The Other Guys is less successful on both counts, but at the very least there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and McKay and Ferrell appeared to have somewhere they wanted the movie to go. Anchorman and its sequel feel more like someone's self-indulgent home videos that were compiled quickly and spit into theaters without revision.

One curious thing about The Other Guys is that toward the end, it started to develop a pretty serious, liberal-bent anti corporate crime message. Anchorman 2 similarly has a weird subplot that starts up midway through which rails on the faulty moral compass and lapsed sense of responsibility in the news media. This kicks off when Burgundy proclaims that they shouldn't be reporting the news people need to hear, they should be reporting what people want to hear. He loads his broadcasts up with brain-dead, low-information fluff and uninformed banter, and is rewarded with record-smashing ratings. In case you've missed the commentary, the movie also treats us to a montage where Ron demands that the broadcasts be lathered with news-tickers and graphics constantly moving this way and that.

The mockery of how bad most cable news outlets have gotten these days (for some reason, Fox News in particular feels singled out, although the movie never does so specifically) is unmistakable, but this is a movie set in 1980, when cable news was just starting out and had not yet gotten to be as awful and as “lowest common denominator” as it is now, in 2013. I'm all for the movie taking shots at this very deserving target, but the way it does so is so broad and aimless… It's more like they "mention" it and then move on, rather than saying anything meaningful about it. You really have to wonder if they couldn't have come up with something a bit more interesting to say about present-day media if they weren't just making the whole movie up as they went along.

Nothing in this new movie "tracks" - there's nothing going on with any of the characters emotionally or professionally that builds or develops throughout. On that subject, here are a few observations:

-So, Ron and his news team do fluffy, bullshit stories EXCEPT when another one of the movie's lead-balloon plot scenes comes along. Then suddenly, Brian Fantana is working on this hard-hitting piece on faulty airplane parts that the parent company of the network wants to kill because it is under the same corporate umbrella. When did Fantana become interested in reporting actual news?

-There’s a mild debate going on throughout the film about how some characters want to protect the integrity of the news, while others don’t. That comes and goes as the movie needs it to, and is largely abandoned by the end. I was still young when cable news started to be on the rise, but was it as rotten as it is now from the very get-go? Anchorman 2 seems to be saying that it was.

-Megan Good’s character, the general manager of the cable news station, hates Ron and everything he's trying to do with his low-information broadcasts passionately, until suddenly she desperately wants to make love to him. They date for a couple scenes, I think, and then Christina Applegate shows back up so they sort of forget about that subplot.

-The best part of the movie is again Brick (Carell). They give him a girlfriend this time, played by Kristin Wiig, and she's basically the female version of him combined with undigested bits of pretty much every other character Wiig has played previously. Their scenes take up an insane amount of screen time (meaning that they must have gotten a good response in the test screenings), but they have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. I've always admired that Ferrell is confident enough in himself that he's not afraid to have other big-dog comedians share his movie (hey, he allowed Sacha Baron Cohen to steal pretty much every scene away from him in Talladega Nights!), but it would have been nice if they had come up with something more interesting for Carell and Wiig to do.

Gags from the previous movie are reprised in this one now and again. I think I liked that this new movie at least tried to find some new contexts to put the gags in, rather than replay them in exactly the same way that the first movie did, but I still had a sense of "Oh, so it's time for that scene again" whenever one would start up. The main culprit is the crazy fight scene between all the rival news organizations that appeared early in the first movie. It's given a much more important placement in 2, and McKay decided to amp things up by adding even more news teams, celebrity cameos, and bizarre vignettes. Okay. But is it funny? I would argue that it's not. It's just "more." "More" is seldom funny, and throwing lots of money at the screen rarely gets a laugh either.

I think this all points to a bigger issue which is that the comedy world is so goddamn insular that a sense of what's "good" really gets lost. I truly believe that ideas which are not funny and should never find their way into a movie or TV show often do because of a combination of force-of-will on the part of the writer/performer who thought the idea up AND the people around them - friends, writers, other comedians - who are too chicken-shit to look them in the face and tell them that what they're talking about is completely terrible.

The worst movie I’ve seen since starting this blog is still Year One. A lot of funny people are in it, and f***ing Harold Ramis (of Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Groundhog’s Day fame) directed it. And it’s wretched. A burnt out wasteland that contains not a single laugh. How could all that talent get together for a few months and have virtually nothing to show for it?

Anchorman 2 isn't nearly that bad, but it also isn't anything even remotely approaching "good." Mostly, it's depressing to think of all the time and money that was spent making something so empty and pointless. Whilst leaving the theater, I had the same thought that I sort of remember having back when I saw the first movie in 2004… "They were given several million dollars and the chance to make a 2 hour movie that they knew would play in theaters nation-wide… and this is what they did with it?"

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