Afternoon delight: ‘Anchorman 2′ is kind of a big deal

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows, from left, Paul Rudd is Brian Fantana, Will Ferrell is Ron Burgundy, David Koechner is Champ Kind and Steve Carell is Brick Tamland in a scene from "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Gemma LaMana)

WASHINGTON – You never quite know which movies will capture our collective imagination, even after they’re released. “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” was only “kind of a big deal” when it arrived in 2004, ranking the 30th highest grossing film of the year and earning far less than its kindred spirit “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”

It wasn’t until it hit DVD that the legend of Ron Burgundy grew, both among college kids screening it together in their dorm rooms and journalists who began noticing the absurd parallels to their own news coverage. Suddenly, Burgundy’s climactic coverage of the San Diego Zoo’s new panda cub didn’t seem so silly.

As various “Anchorman” alums rose to stardom, that little 2004 film felt like the passing of the comedy torch between the “Frat Pack” of Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Jack Black to the new comedy crowd of Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, who all contributed to “Anchorman” before finding huge success the following year in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005).

And so, nearly a decade later, we get “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” once again directed by Adam McKay (“Step Brothers”) and promoted with more P.R. ferocity than any film in recent memory. For weeks, we’ve seen Ron Burgundy perform ESPN interviews with Peyton Manning and conduct guest broadcasts at local TV stations nationwide. Now everyone wants to know: does the movie live up to the hype?

While the first “Anchorman” provided a social commentary on women cracking into the male-dominated workplace of 1970s San Diego, “Anchorman 2″ tackles the rise of 24/7 cable news in 1980 New York City, via the fictional station GNN.

Everything we view as sensational today on CNN or Fox News is attributed to Ron Burgundy, from excessive graphics to patriotic puppies to wild speculation during real-time events. At one point, Burgundy interrupts an interview with Yasser Arafat on Middle East peace by cutting to a high-speed car chase like O.J. in the White Bronco. Think of “Network” (1976), “Broadcast News” (1987) or “The Newsroom” (2012) with the volume turned all the way up to 11. All the while, the ridiculousness isn’t far from the truth, as Conan O’Brien pointed out just this week in this hilariously scary mash-up:

Of course, most of us aren’t going to “Anchorman 2″ to see the social commentary. Most of us just want to laugh and see our favorite characters reunite. Have no fear, the gang’s all here: Christina Applegate as Burgundy’s wife and rival anchor Veronica Corningstone, Paul Rudd as the “sex panther” reporter Brian Fantana, David Koechner as cowboy sportscaster Champ and Steve Carell as the “dumb as a brick” weatherman Brick Tamland, who not only “loves lamp,” but also falls for the network receptionist (Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids”), who has similar IQ issues.

The script, co-written by Ferrell and McKay with plenty of room for improv, is peppered with zingers that will make the entire movie theater laugh out loud. I don’t want to give away any of the jokes, but the subject of Champ’s new restaurant business adds a new phrase to the comedy lexicon (“Chicken of the Cave”). There are also smaller, but equally funny touches, like Carell expressing his love for Wiig with an awkward touch to the shoulder. If you liked the first “Anchorman,” your stomach will hurt from laughing for a good two-thirds of “Anchorman 2.”

And then it came, after fits of laughter, a noticeable hush fell across the theater as the film ended with too many tangents and loose ends. A potential rivalry with James Marsden never quite connects, Christina Applegate isn’t given enough to do, Meagan Good is misused as Ferrell blurts out the word “black” exactly like Austin Powers shouting “mole” to Fred Savage, Ferrell recalls bad memories of “Blades of Glory” during an ice skating routine, the script “loses sight” of the humor in a lighthouse blindness bit and the finale literally “jumps the shark” with a shark scene.

After a while, you’ll be quoting Ferrell from the first film, “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.”

Still, a majority of it works. As Rudd described his “sex panther” cologne, “60 percent of the time, it works every time.”

In fact, so many jokes connect that it’s impossible to blame the filmmakers for the misfires. Instead, we chalk it up to an admirable runaway creativity that attracts even more Hollywood A- listers who want to participate in the film’s final anchor fight. No spoilers here but they’re some of the biggest names in movies, music and television.

In the end, the overall product is a far better sequel than “Caddyshack II” (1988) or “Airplane II” (1982), and puts recent efforts like “The Hangover Part II” (2011) to shame. It may very well be the best comedy sequel since “Meet the Fockers” (2004), even if it lacks the ability to introduce iconic new characters. Let’s not forget, it wasn’t until the second “Austin Powers” that we met both Fat Bastard and Mini Me.

If nothing else, “Anchorman 2″ is a good excuse to go back and watch the original as you prepare to check out part two. It’s kind of a big deal, a touchstone for a generation and the celebration of a pop culture phenomenon that has since turned Ron Burgundy from pathetic to prophetic in his post-credits prediction, “Someday we’ll look back at all this with much fondness.”

Stay classy, Washington.

★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s 2013 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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