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The audience that shows up for a comedy is the most tyrannical of all. Their very presence is the equivalent of a schoolyard bully’s challenge: “Go ahead — make me laugh.” Which is why there’s danger in following up a hit comedy with a sequel, even nine years after the fact. Adam McKay’s 2004 Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, starring Will Ferrell as a ’70s TV anchorboob, was not only a hit; it nosed its way almost immediately into the comedy pantheon. Guys you really wouldn’t want to date, and maybe some you would, insisted on quoting it wholesale — “Stay classy” now has a permanent spot in the vernacular. And so the appearance of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, also directed by McKay, raises a two-pronged question: Could a sequel ever measure up? And if so, do we really want it to?
The good news is that Anchorman 2 is pretty funny. It’s also more rambling and hit-or-miss than its predecessor, which means, thankfully, that it’s less likely to become what we euphemistically call iconic: In other words, fewer annoying guys will be inspired to quote it. You may very well laugh when Ferrell’s Burgundy — who has left San Diego for the much bigger pond known as New York, only to fail spectacularly — tries to hang himself from a visibly fragile fluorescent light fixture. But you’re not likely to re-enact it at home.
Burgundy survives that lame suicide attempt, of course, prompted by his depression at having lost his big New York job, even as his co-anchor wife, Christina Applegate’s delectably named Veronica Corningstone, becomes a raging success. The disparity prompts a split between the two, and Burgundy is miserable until he’s offered a gig at a brand-new station. He scoffs at the concept as it’s outlined to him: a 24-hour news network? It’ll never fly! But he comes around, and decides to reassemble his old San Diego news team, all of whom have moved on to other ventures. Paul Rudd’s man-on-the-scene correspondent and sex god Brian Fantana is a kitten photographer; David Koechner’s sportscaster Champ Kind now runs a fast-food franchise whose specialty looks like chicken but actually boasts a bigger profit margin (hint: he calls it “Chicken of the Cave”); and Steve Carell’s Dada-dense weathercaster Brick Tamland is dead — but not for long. Burgundy collects the whole gang in his RV — the license plate reads, characteristically, STYNCLSY — and totes them back to New York, where they make their mark by reporting only upbeat news that makes people feel good about America.
Most of Anchorman 2 is utterly, indefensibly ridiculous, and like all reasonably ambitious comedies, it at times pushes the boundaries of good taste. When Burgundy first meets his new boss, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), a take-charge type and woman of color, his jaw hangs open like that of a hooked tuna. “Oh. Black!” he blurts out, a marvelous take on the universal human fear of saying absolutely, positively the wrong thing. Other gags wobble off the mark: When he and Linda begin dating, he insults her exceedingly well-mannered family by talking jive — his version of it, anyway — at the dinner table. In the trademark Burgundy manner, he bumbles along confidently, but the jokes are just too forced. They’re crass, yet maybe not crass enough.
Anchorman 2, which was written by Ferrell and McKay, is better when it gives in to absolute absurdity: A sight gag involving a slo-mo RV crash is totally, dismissively dumb, but the fact that it’s set to Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” makes it inexplicably hilarious. A parade of fine actors show up in cameos and small roles. That laff-riot of the century Harrison Ford turns up as a tight-ass station manager, and the performance works, not least because Ford always looks a bit constipated to begin with. Kristen Wiig plays an inept secretary who becomes dim-bulb Brick’s love interest: They reach out to each other with out-there lines of dialogue that meet somewhere in the middle like wriggly sine waves — their Martian chemistry is wonderful. And John C. Reilly shows up as the ghost of Stonewall Jackson. Because, well, why not?
With those eyes that are a little too close together, and that confident swagger that looks as if it could disintegrate into a pratfall at any time, Ferrell makes a grand ringleader for all this nonsense. A few years ago, when he was making film after film, he became dangerously overexposed: A little of his pompous demeanor goes a long way. But he’s an inherently generous performer, which is rare for big comic actors — they need the spotlight like fish need water, and they usually just drink it all. Ferrell doesn’t demand to be the center of attention at all times. He’s good at opening up the space around him for his fellow performers. That may provide a clue into what made that first Anchorman so successful, and into what makes the sequel tick, too. The laughs in Anchorman 2 have less to do with the gags themselves than with the elasticity of the space between them. Ferrell keeps those channels wide open, creating room for all sorts of weirdness to sneak through. He’s a good neighbor to his fellow actors. That’s just his way of STYNCLSY.