Since graduating from “Saturday Night Live” 11 years ago, Will Ferrell has built the sort of ubiquity that few if any other former sketch comedians have achieved, and he’s done it by aiming at a low-to-middle brow audience that, unlike Adam Sandler’s, has at least learned how to breath through its nostrils. The sudden and sustained popularity of Funny Or Die, the site he founded with Adam McKay, has helped, as have his turns in some surprise breakout one-off hits: “Elf,” “Talladega Nights.” (If you remember nothing else of “Old School,” you can recall Ferrell jogging down a darkened street wearing only a pair of sneakers.)
His approach to comedy follows suit. Loud, obnoxious, ridiculous and self-effacing, Ferrell stakes his dignity, if not his very life, on being funny.
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is Ferrell’s first sequel, following the slow-boil cult success of 2004′s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” Built on catchphrases, Ferrell’s blithely cheeseball titular San Diego news anchor and a sense of humor that falls somewhere between dada and slapstick, the original “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” Only a handful of yurt-dwellers on the Mongolian steppes and long-term coma patients could have dodged the run-up to the sequel. For the past nine months, beginning with a turn as Burgundy on Conan O’Brien, Ferrell has been traipsing around North America in-character, playing Burgundy on actual telecasts of actual television shows plenty glad to turn into an infomercial for a dippy comedy in return for — something, we’re not sure. The chance to host a piece of performance art and get more Twitter mentions, surely.
The suspicion after seeing “Anchorman 2″ is that, aside from plugging his movie, Ferrell has been punking the media. Ferrell wrote the script with McKay, who directs again. They put Burgundy with his local news team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner) in New York in 1980 for the dawn of the cable news era, and it’s none too kind to that medium.
Burgundy’s early revelation that he could tell people what they want to see, rather than what they need to see, leads to a ratings coup off of cute-animal stories, trumped-up weather reports, sports highlight reels composed entirely of home runs, and reflexive patriotism that devolves instantly into jingoistic flattery. The oft-quoted signoff “Stay classy, San Diego” has evolved to “Have an American night,” to ratings that make Burgundy the king of the city.
But preachy, it ain’t. “Anchorman 2″ holds true to Ferrell’s kamikaze approach to the form, careening through gag after gag, mostly to decent effect, and lingering on the duds long enough to own them. Burgundy has to overcome his trepidation at working under a woman of color (Meagan Good), and his shaky relationship with his young son (Judah Nelson). Neither of these storylines is quite worth the time devoted to it, and in the case of Burgundy’s continued blithering the word “black” at his boss, it goes from funny-because-it’s-offensive to plain ol’ unfunny in a cringe-worthy hurry.
Amid the lulls, though, are moments of such sublime idiocy that you cannot stay mad. Kristen Wiig is a bright spot as Carell’s equally idiotic love interest. The reprise of the first movie’s epic battle scene is a lunatic circus of shameless TV jokes.
If the movie lumbers at times, it also slings more giggles than just about any other big release this year. Funny, yes — but you won’t exactly die laughing.