A Christmas miracle? I wouldn’t go that far, but in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay do not sully the great name of Ron Burgundy. Having finally accepted a battleship-load of sequel money, they’re determined not to make like the usual greedy hacks. They widen their canvas and up the stakes. Our favorite swaggering San Diego oaf is now in New York in the late seventies, where he’s swiftly booted from a network-anchor chair in favor of his wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). He does not handle rejection (or being bested by a woman, let alone a spouse) with grace. But after a period of suitable dissolution, he’s tapped for a revolutionary 24-hour-news network. Best of all, he can reassemble his old team: sports guy Champ (David Koechner), correspondent Brian (Paul Rudd), and that indefatigable imbecile, weatherman Brick (Steve Carell). True, they’re stuck in the graveyard slot — two to five a.m. — but the smug, painfully handsome prime-time anchor (James Marsden) is just itching for a fall. And the stodgy, substance-driven news business of old is about to get a kick in the ass.
Once more, McKay and Ferrell have gathered together a cast of Extreme Clowns and let them do their worst. The thinking must have been, The more insane the improv, the better. They trot out familiar movie templates (slobby underdogs versus slicksters; successful man faces sudden disability and learns that professional success means nothing relative to the love of family) and add gags. Those gags are so extreme that scene after scene rockets past dumb, past camp, past Kabuki, and into the Milky Way of Silly where laws can be made up and discarded as long as what happens gets laughs. At the screening I attended, many of the jokes in the first half got no laughs, particularly the Dadaist exchanges between Carell and Kristen Wiig as his intellectual equal. Yet I had the strangest feeling: that somewhere in the universe, at some time in the future, they would bring down the house (or its alien equivalent).
Ferrell and McKay have a lot of friends, and the sheer number of A-listers making cameos is more hilarious than anything said guest stars actually do. And for the nicest of bad reasons — Ferrell’s generosity toward his co-stars — Ron Burgundy often assumes the ill-fitting role of straight man. My favorite section of Anchorman 2 is grim and low-key and features only Ferrell, Applegate, and the Burgundys’ young son: Ron struggles to master a disability, discover the meaning of love, and rehabilitate a wounded baby great white shark. It’s Ferrell and McKay at their deepest, purest, and most absurdly hopeful.