“Anchorman 2″ Less Funny than First Installment, Yet Admirable in its Lack of Structure

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues occupies a bizarre place in pop culture — even more so than the famously wacky collaborations of its director and star. The duo of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have yielded some of the most enduring raunch of the last decade in American comedy — films of endearing idiocy and genuine warmth, as in Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and particularly the original Anchorman. Perhaps what’s gone most unnoticed about their evolution, however, is that in recent years they’ve become oddly political in their product. The 2010 cop-comedy The Other Guys was, of all things, a very thinly-veiled critique of shady tactics within the financial world.

Ridiculous though it may sound, Anchorman 2 actually takes their work even farther in this direction, all the while distancing themselves even further from narrative convention than they already were. For indeed, Anchorman 2 is a bold departure from any sort of depiction of reality that its predecessor was already barely clinging to. This is a film genuinely admirable in its commitment to thumbing its nose at storytelling payoffs and character likability. The film details the reunion of Ron Burgundy with his gleefully sexist, racist news team of idiots in the late ’70′s — removing them from their San Diego hometown and dropping them in the midst of a 24-hour New York news channel, where they must adjust to a new set of pressures and expectations and proceed to obliviously smash through all of them.

The group’s antics and idiocy actually brings some weight with it this time around, however, smartly making The Legend Continues a little weightier than its predecessor. The main cast of Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell are all back with their distinctively improvisational, non-sequitur-laden brand of comedy. But as it happens — their hiring aboard the first-ever 24-hour news network proves a terrible choice, given their tendency to inject the sort of fluffy, substance-free filler indicative of contemporary news networks. And that’s sort of the point of Anchorman 2 — all of the dumb-ass quotes and silly set-pieces all contribute, in a way, to the downfall of serious news reporting seen over the last three decades. It’s dumb as shit, but at least makes some effort to tie it into a moderately adult train of thought.

While none of the quotes in Anchorman 2 will reach the near-legendary status of the first — “smelly pirate hooker”, “Great Oden’s Raven!”, “I love lamp” — this is still a totally unstructured brand of comedy. Admirably so. But there’s no denying the returns have diminished noticeably for McKay and co. — it’s simply impossible to replicate something as indelibly goofy and spontaneous as the first Anchorman. The only moment that genuinely creatively exceeds the original cannot be discussed much — simply that it takes the famed news-anchors’ battle scene of the original and then runs with it into an even more absurd direction. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues certainly exists on a lower tier of quality than what’s come before from its creative team, but that’s more of a testament to their enduring qualities than this. Its not classic, but’s still brash and goofy and deeply, deeply lovable.

“American Hustle” is Breezy ’70s Escapism With Genuine, Penetrating Edge

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There’s few comeback stories in Hollywood that are based on genuine artistic merit — too often, they move on some sort of apologist compensation than on the actual quality of the new work. The revitalization of writer-director David O. Russell, then, has been one of the most delightful surprises in recent film history. The story goes a little like this: David, a young Amherst philosophy major, ventures out into independent film and finds great success with incendiary films dabbling in incest, psychology and the inanity of war — but soon develops a reputation as a psychologically, physically abusive asshole on his film sets and is ostracized from the industry.

The damning stories surrounding Mr. O. Russell for much of the early decade would be more than enough to sink a director with three times his reputation — but with the release of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, two Oscar-winning dramas with a nutty energy and intense focus on character, he’s rebounded into the forefront of current American cinema. American Hustle is certainly the apotheosis of this new stage in his career — it’s a loose, improvisational, swaggering period-piece with a fairly strong disregard for conventional plot mechanics and payoffs. There’s a lot of catharsis to be found in American Hustle, yes, but not through the extensive scams and heists the characters pull — moreso in the relationships amongst themselves. It’s a movie about criminals that is wholly disinterested in criminality, but rather, the psychological and emotional shrapnel that constant deception leaves in one’s self. It’s weighty stuff, but also delivered in one of the frothiest, most effortlessly entertaining works of the year.

The year is 1978 and con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are madly in love. Selling fake checks and counterfeit artwork to anyone that will buy, the two have a fairly successful operation going — until coked-out, over-ambitious FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) catches the duo red-handed. Rather than throw them in jail, Di Maso employs the two as part of an elaborate scheme to catch other crooks, politicians and mobsters red-handed — starting off with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a genuinely well-intentioned New Jersey mayor whose efforts to revitalize his city have led him to illegal funding. One of the recurring ironies of American Hustle is that the closest thing it has to a ‘villain figure’, Polito, is in fact, the most selfless, sweet character in the film — this being just one of many playful tweaks with audience sympathies and character dynamics.

O. Russell’s considerable skill as a technician are on full display here, too — the glitzy period details of the ’70s locations, the elaborate comb-overs and hysterical hairstyles, the swirling camerawork, the booming soundtrack of period songs both obscure and obvious. Comparisons to another American auteur whose recent work I’ve given considerable praise (Scorsese & Wolf of Wall Street, respectively) are pretty on-the-nose at face value — the swagger, the sheer confidence of filmmaking — but fairly shallow beyond there. Scorsese’s period epics tend to document elaborate lifestyles and their seductive qualities, where O. Russell’s focus is more on interpersonal deception.

Where American Hustle‘s momentum is somewhat lost is when the character crises slow to a crawl and the (mostly fictionalized) events reach their conclusion. O. Russell spends so much time asserting the moral ambiguities of the characters and reminding his audience that the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are often psychologically indistinguishable — so when the respective characters meet their wildly different fates, it seems incongruous with what came before it. It genuinely seems to lose sight of what sort of film it wants to be, but only in its final moments. What comes before then, however, is a sort of blissful marriage of ’40s star-studded Hollywood breeze, ’70s New Hollywood egotism and the genuinely modern, original sensibilities of one of our most gifted directors. It’s good, guys.