Anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is back, but San Diego is in the rearview mirror this time. Burgundy and his lovely lady Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) have made a home in the Big Apple and the big-time big-boy anchor desk looms, as the mack daddy of news anchormen Mack Harken (Harrison Ford) prepares to make an offer that cannot be refused. The thing is, Veronica gets the call, sending Burgundy into a tailspin. He abandons his family, retreating to Sea World and thoughts of suicide, until a chance meeting with a headhunting agent (Dylan Baker) with a new 24-hour news outlet signals a return to the game, not just for Burgundy, but his news crew — the totally un-PC Champ Kind (David Koechner), smarmy cat stud Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and the hapless walking non-sequitur Brick Tamland (Steve Carell).
Back in New York City, Burgundy faces off against a flashy primetime anchor named Jack Lime (James Marsden) and a scary-sexy boss lady (Meagan Good) en route to changing the television news landscape, forever. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues extends the Ferrell comedic brand: an unlikely stew of silly hijinks that somehow elevates itself to the level of high-art by so brazenly scraping the bottom of the barrel. Ferrell and company, supported in the director’s chair by Adam McKay (Ferrell’s partner-in-crime from way, way back), make the dumb utterly sublime, which apparently is a talent on par with the supreme technique of Meryl Streep.
I’ve had the opportunity to attend three press conferences staged in support of Will Ferrell projects and I have walked away each time with a completely different sense of the character of the man who has become a comedic giant of our times. Right off the bat, I encountered the “serious” Ferrell during the Stranger Than Fiction junket. Working alongside acting heavyweights like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, Ferrell presented himself as a studied performer, thoughtfully explaining how, as a high school student, he wore footie pajamas to school one day to see if he could withstand the derision from his peers.
The next time I sat before Ferrell was in Columbus, Ohio, during a publicity tour for Semi-Pro where the comedian commanded the stage like a hyper-caffeinated stand-up act, slinging jokes in a scattershot, harried coffeehouse barista fashion. The measured man of humor was nowhere to be found; this was a fevered junkie, in serious need of attention.
Almost two years ago, I found myself in front of Ferrell again, but for The Other Guys, where he sat anonymously among a talented ensemble of would-be court jesters. With Mark Wahlberg (criminally unfunny), Michael Keaton (dangerously biting wit), Eva Mendes (surprisingly self-deprecating) and McKay, Ferrell seemingly could relax and simply let the jokes come to him. Here, he was more of a designated hitter ahead in the count, knowing that the next pitch was going to be imminently hittable.
I wonder if anyone gets to see the real Will Ferrell? But maybe the question is how would we know who the real Will Ferrell is?
Onscreen, he embraces the idea of being a chameleon moreso than audiences, especially critical viewers, might truly be aware of, at least upon first glance. His physical presence is undeniable. Ferrell with his bushy mop-top towers over most performers sharing the screen with him and his face, while fleshy and malleable, seems somehow carved from stone. It could be that it has remained unchanged during this stretch of his career.
But whether he’s front and center, as Ron Burgundy — a role he seems comfortable playing any time, any place as we’ve seen during the promotional blitz for the sequel — or dropping in for a sure one-shot cameo (think of his funeral crashing turn in Wedding Crashers), Ferrell plays dumb as if there are an infinite variety of options to choose from and he’s written the book on the form.
Burgundy is a cocky bumbler in the Austin Powers mode, but beneath the unreadable facade lurks a weird self-awareness. He knows his limits and is more in touch with his fears and doubts than he can let on. Therein lies the unique quality that drives the performance. Burgundy succeeds time and again because he fails at failure. We, and everyone who comes in contact with him, can smell it on him, like skunk musk.
Ferrell finds whatever legendary concoction, prop or shtick to inhabit his rogues’ gallery of fools and foils, creating separation among them and from the man anchoring the center of it all. (Opens wide Friday.) (PG-13)
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