By most reasonable standards, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a stupid, stupid movie — gleefully so, even. It concerns the further adventures of super-dim television news anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), for starters. It includes a relationship between his even-stupider weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and his comparably-witted new lady love (Kristen Wiig) that basically amounts to two people blurting non-sequiturs at each other. Sports correspondent Champ Kind (David Koechner) owns a chicken restaurant, but confesses to serving deep-fried bats. Ron has a brief relationship with his African-American boss (Meagan Good), and their interracial sex scene is intercut with a clip from Diff’rent Strokes. And so on; you get the idea. But co-writer/star Ferrell and his frequent collaborator, co-writer/director Adam McKay, are up to something else here, slyly sneaking in several pointed jabs at television news in general and cable news in particular.
This is nothing new for the pair. Two summers ago, McKay produced and Ferrell starred in The Campaign, a broad political comedy that smuggled in, between the sex tape and baby-punching gags, fierce criticism of Citizens United and the Koch Brothers. In 2010, McKay co-wrote and directed Ferrell’s The Other Guys, a withering attack on capitalist greed and the financial sector, advertised as a buddy cop action movie spoof. Even their 2006 NASCAR comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby can be close-read as an indictment of the gross commercialization of professional sports.
They also collaborated on You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush, Ferrell’s 2008 Broadway one-man show that delivered a few well-earned parting shots at the exiting President. But that production (and its subsequent HBO broadcast) wasn’t hiding anything — it was clearly labeled and marketed as political satire. And that’s how we tend to prefer it in today’s culture: when you sit down to watch The Daily Show or Real Time or The Colbert Report, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and (fairly predictably) how you’re going to respond to it.
This wasn’t always the case. Broad, silly comedies like Million Dollar Legs and Duck Soup parodied fascism just as Hitler was coming to power; nearly a decade later, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator spoofed the Fuhrer on the eve of America’s entrance into WWII. Twenty years after, films like Dr. Strangelove and The Russsians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming sent up the Cold War. But somewhere along the line, George S. Kaufman’s observation that “satire is what closes on Saturday night” became conventional wisdom, and studios, ever afraid of alienating potential moviegoers, relegated social satire to the indies and the teevee.
But Will Ferrell is a big enough movie star that he can get away with injecting his progressive politics into his big, dumb comedies, so long as they keep making money. Anchorman 2 seems to promise more of its predecessor’s inspired silliness — and don’t get me wrong, it does deliver (to get the review portion out of the way: I laughed pretty much from start to finish, and commend the filmmakers for not only recapturing the original picture’s delightful weirdness, but for doing so without relying on repurposed catch phrases and worn-out bits). The narrative finds Ron and wife/co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, kinda wasted) separating when she gets promoted to the network and he gets fired; he hits bottom, drunkenly hosting dolphin shows at Sea World to taunts of “Children and animals hate you, Ron Burgundy!” But he is rescued from his suicidal despair by producer Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker), who brings him a job on a new network: GNN, offering up all news, all the time, 24 hours a day.
The narrative’s timeframe (early ‘80s), the network’s name, and the revolutionary nature of what it’s offering are obviously meant to parallel CNN. But there’s a bait-and-switch. The network is owned and operated by Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson), a blustering Australian mogul clearly modeled off Fox News mastermind Rupert Murdoch. A “self-made man” who transformed his inherited $300 million fortune into $305 million, Allenby is a greedy, corrupt plutocrat who uses the excuse of “synergy” to bury a sweeps-period exposé by Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) about faulty airplanes, since it would reflect unfavorably on his own Koala Airlines.
Tthe network’s programming, meanwhile, is transformed by Ron and his band of idiots. “Why do we have to tell people what they need to hear?” asks Ron, desperate for ratings. “Why don’t we tell them what they want to hear?” And thus, narrator Bill Curtis tells us, cable television history was made: Burgundy’s program is a pungent soup of cute animal stories, hurricane coverage, sports highlights (and highlights only — basically, a collage of “Whammys”), live car chases, screen-cluttering graphics, and chest-thumping patriotism. “She’s the best country in the world,” he assures his viewers, of the U-S-of-A. “In the history of the world!” They cheer and agree and high-five each other in bars. “Don’t just have a great night,” he tells his audience at the program’s conclusion. “Have an American night!” Shapp is ecstatic: “It’s total crap, and they can’t stop watching!”
So McKay and Ferrell are parodying — a good 20 years out of its actual timeframe — the playbook that Fox News perfected and their competitors scrambled to replicate. In other words, in their big, expensive, hyper-marketed Christmas studio movie, they’re doing the same kind of Fox-mocking that Jon Stewart does every night. But there is an argument to be made that what they’re doing is ballsier. For all the brilliance of The Daily Show, there’s always a sense that Stewart (and Maher, and Colbert) are preaching to the choir, pointing out hypocrisy and media maleficence to an audience that is already aware of it, and predisposed to concur. But a movie like Anchorman 2 is bringing that message to the multiplex, and to an audience that might have switched off Fox News to go there. I’m not saying the picture’s media commentary is going to change their minds. But when we see that even a dope like Ron Burgundy looks at a celebrity car chase and announces, “this is not news,” there’s at least a glimmer of a possibility that we’ll contemplate a bit more carefully what, exactly, television news has become — and what it should be.