The Well poses the ultimate conundrum for all comedy sequels. Familiarity is one reason people go see comedy sequels in the first place: you like these characters and their world, let’s spend some more time with them! But too much familiarity breeds contempt: go back to The Well too much and it’s just a retread. It’s a hard balance to strike and few comedy sequels can pull it off. Unfortunately, that includes Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. While there are still funny scenes and quotable lines, that anarchic, absurdist spark that made the original so interesting and Ron Burgundy the quotable zeitgeist of many a kegger has faded.
Anchorman 2 finds Ron (Will Ferrell) and Veronica (Christina Applegate) as co-anchors of the network news in New York City. Their boss (Harrison Ford, speaking of faded sparks) promotes Veronica and fires Ron, leading him into a downward spiral that culminates with a suicide attempt at SeaWorld (tale as old as time). When the offer to join a burgeoning enterprise known as a “24-hour news network” comes along, Ron reassembles his news team (David Koechner, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd) and heads back to New York to reclaim the spotlight. Once there, he has to contend with a hotshot anchor (a very game James Marsden) while working for an ambitious — and to his surprise, black — boss (Meagan Good) and trying to prove he cares about his son. Along the way there are various cameos and callbacks and odd diversions before we all learn that maybe corporations shouldn’t dictate what news is broadcast to the people.
Co-writer and director Adam McKay’s sequel isn’t a bad film, but it suffers from two problems that plague its entirety. The first: it exists in the shadow of the predecessor, and when it calls back to what worked in the first film, it comes off like the school of “Just Give the People What They Want.” Remember those outrageous sexist things Ron said about women? Now here he is doing that… about black people! Remember how Ron fought a bear last time? Now he’s fighting a shark (that’s gotta be worth at least two bears, right?)! And yes, there’s an even bigger, more epic, more star-studded News Team rumble this time around — and while it has some great moments, it ultimately screws up the flow of the movie. There are still funny parts in all of this. I particularly like Greg Kinnear as Veronica’s new psychologist boyfriend — who Ron is certain has telekinetic powers. But while most of the jokes make you laugh, you usually then remember that they were funnier in the first one.
The other issue bogging down Anchorman 2 is that it has no through line — or, to be more accurate, it has multiple central narratives. In an oddball comedy like this, in which, say, suddenly characters are in a cartoon land representing orgasms, it may not seem like a central storyline matters. But the grounding that a solid, main narrative thread provides is what allows the rest of a comedy to effectively spin off into weird quirkiness, anchoring material so it doesn’t feel like complete free-form improv or a collection of skits. In the sequel, Ron and Veronica are split up and have to get back together, Ron and the News Team are competing against the other timeslots in ratings, Ron has to deal with his sexy cutthroat boss, Brick likes a gal, there’s a debilitating injury that needs to be overcome, and then the whole thing turns out to be about how cable news channels have dumbed down the discourse and are also ruled by corporate interests. Phew. When there’s so much splintering of the story, it makes the film’s more abstract elements seem excessively disparate. While I appreciate McKay bringing in political elements into his particular weird brand of comedy, it feels shoehorned and never really works.
When the first Anchorman came out, it was revealed that enough footage had been shot and discarded to assemble another movie, complete with its own plot (Wake Up, Ron Burgundy). That’s basically what this movie feels like: a collection of more scenes with these beloved characters surrounding a patchwork of plots. Anchorman 2 will be a great “Oh yeah, they made this” movie to happen upon some hungover Sunday morning or discover was added to Netflix some bleary night. The cast is hilarious, with the news team maintaining their excellent chemistry from the first film. But with so many positive elements, it’s sad that Anchorman 2 never truly steps out from its predecessor’s shadow.