Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the sequel to director Adam McKay’s 2004 smash and cultural touchstone Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, is by no means a good movie. The film, which follows titular news anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) from San Diego to the big time in New York and the rise of cable news is too eager to repeat comedic beats from its predecessor, and is hampered by confused character motivations and a long diversion involving a not-so-tame shark. But what Anchorman 2 does do is solidify the most significant theme of Will Ferrell’s career: the ways in which masculine ideals harm men even as they help them, and the desperate need for a feminist movement that helps men figure out what they actually want out of life.
What makes Ron Burgundy both repulsive and hilariously sympathetic is the ways in which Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy makes clear that the privileges that made his path thus far as smooth as Scotch have also left him woefully unprepared for a competitive workplace. That competition arrives in the form of Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), a sharp, ambitious reporter, who leaves Ron entirely befuddled because, rather than simply being available for him to ogle, regale with tales of his reporterly prowess, and make animated love to, she appears to want his job. When Ron’s sports reporter, Champ Kind (David Koechner), declares that “It is anchor man, not anchor lady. And that is a scientific fact,” he’s trying to forestall the prospect of having to compete with women by disqualifying them from even entering the arena.
But that happy, stable state of affairs–at least for Ron, Champ, and their colleagues–is not to be maintained. And shortly after Veronica arrives at the station, it becomes clear why the man of the news team so badly wanted to keep her out of the game. While Ron and his team are content to slide from newscast to newscast, lubricated by brown liquor and Brian Fantana’s (Paul Rudd) cologne collection, Veronica’s constantly seeking out new stories and opportunities. When she gets a chance to co-anchor with Ron, Ron plays a stupid prank on her, getting the voiceover announcer to introduce her as “Tits McGee.” Rather than getting flustered, Veronica crisply responds “Good evening, San Diego. I’m Veronica Corningstone. Tits McGee is on vacation,” while Ron’s the one who ends up flubbing his lines. Ron throws temper tantrums when Veronica wants to review tape, rather than letting him show one of his Emmy acceptance speeches. And while Ron constantly returns to the idea that he’s naturally superior, roaring at Veronica that “I’m a man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn. That’s what kind of man I am. You’re just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of us. It’s science,” he wilts in the face of her confidence. “I will have you know that I have more talent and more intelligence in my little finger than you do in your entire body, sir,” she tells him. “You are a smelly pirate hooker,” Ron snaps back.
Ultimately, Ron’s terror of Veronica poisons both his personal and professional life. Before Veronica’s arrival, Ron was cosseted, and his quirks, like an inability to ad lib off the teleprompter, were catered to. But Ron’s rigidity means that he falls for the same sort of prank that he tried to play on Veronica, and he is fired. And his absolute need to be superior in his relationship to Veronica torpedoes it. Maybe he’s the kind of man who “discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn,” but by the third act of Anchorman, Ron is bearded, bloated, jobless, and single. If this is male superiority, it’s not much of a case for the concept. Ultimately, Ron’s rescued when he learns to accept Veronica as a personal and professional partner.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues doesn’t have nearly as close to a coherent arc. Put briefly, Ron moves to a start-up cable news network after Veronica is promoted over him to anchor network evening news. He becomes a ratings sensation by broadcasting sex, gossip, car chases, and relentlessly flogging patriotism, until for some reason, Brian Fantana decides to do a hard-hitting investigative report on poorly-constructed airlines that angers the network’s Australian backer, who has it killed. Ron goes blind, reunites with Veronica, raises a baby shark, and then, on his return to anchoring, walks off the air to protest the death of Brian’s story. And despite the fact that he’s pioneered a new model of news that presumably precludes serious reporting, Ron and Veronica suddenly have their pick of jobs elsewhere.
These plot twists don’t really come together into a clear argument about the future of news. But there’s a genuine idea in the parts of the movie where Ron’s rising through the cable news ranks. If Ron can’t compete with Veronica in the realm of hard news, he can sabotage her by making a virtue out of mediocrity. Veronica may land Yasser Arafat for sweeps week. But Ron has the genius to recognize that while viewers might like the idea of themselves as people who pay serious attention to the Middle East peace process, it’s so much easier to accept an anchor’s order to “Don’t just have a great night, have an American night,” and to enjoy the quick and easy pleasures of a car chase. If the beneficiaries of the patriarchy can’t maintain their superiority in a merit-based competition, the last-ditch defense of their privileges is to radically alter the rules of the competition, leaving women running after accomplishments that are then greeted with derision.
The Anchorman franchise may be the most prominent, and the most idea-driven of Ferrell’s signature roles. But it’s far from the only angle Ferrell’s taken on how conventional ideas of masculinity actually serve men poorly.
In Old School and Wedding Crashers, Ferrell’s played men who are, to varying degrees, trapped by the ideals they’ve set for themselves and the good times they’re supposed to be having. Frank, who joins a frat run by his other adult friends in Old School, is torn between two conceptions of masculinity. Outwardly, he’s a successful grown-up with a career and a new marriage, but he’s also drawn back to his college identity, the hard-drinking, streaking Frank the Tank. Rather than reconciling these two identities, as his friend Bernard (Vince Vaughn), who can still throw a killer party while still figuring out how to coach his son’s soccer team, Frank ultimately can’t pull it together to save his marriage, and ends up reverting to his college self. Maybe it’s fun to be Frank the Tank well into your thirties, but a grown man who’s so excited to get invited to an orgy that he makes a scene in a supermarket, as Frank does at the end of the film, seems more pitiable than admirable.
Similar, Ferrell’s hilarious cameo as pick-up maestro Chazz Reinhold in Wedding Crashers takes the idea of adult hedonism even further into the realm of the grotesque. In the early sections of the film, Reinhold is mentioned only by name, as a legend who taught John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) how to pick up women for casual sex at weddings. But as the film progresses, Jeremy enters a serious relationship, and John has his heart badly broken. When John visits Chazz, hoping for an injection of mojo, he finds something far more disconcerting. Chazz is jobless and spends his days watching kung fu movies and ordering around his mother, with whom he lives. When he ventures out, it’s to chart new frontiers in pickups, going after bereaved women at funerals. While Chazz might technically be living a misogynist’s version of having it all, with a woman who meekly cooks and cleans for him, and a steady supply of sex with extremely attractive women, he’s obviously repulsive and stunted, and John is horrified by him.
Then, there the range of puffed-up political figures whose desperation to maintain their superiority ultimately leads them to damage themselves. In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ferrell’s titular race-car driver has pursued a very specific vision of success, whether or not he actually likes the things that he’s chasing so frantically. Ricky Bobby has a wife who he ultimately discovers that he can’t stand, children with whom he has no actual relationship, and lives plastered in logos, eating nothing but food from chain restaurants. Once again, he outwardly achieved wealth, prestige, and a sexually attractive partner, but the movie’s great strength is that it creates space for Ricky Bobby to figure out whether what he’s expected to want, and what he actually wants, are the same thing. Ultimately, he decides that he prefers his personal assistant, Susan (Amy Adams), a smart, attractive woman who’s genuinely interested in both racing and Ricky Bobby to the wife he treated like an actual trophy. And Ricky Bobby, who’s previously lived by a trademarked credo of “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” (in and of itself a pretty good summary of the ideas behind male supremacy and men’s rights activism), discovers that he’d rather let his best friend Cal (John C. Reilly) win a race once in a while and retain the other man’s friendship.
The somewhat underrated The Campaign, directed by Ferrell’s frequent helmer Adam McKay (who also directed the Anchorman franchise and Talladega Nights), digs further into the destructiveness of staying on top–on or in this case, in Congress–at all costs. In The Campaign, Ferrell is a Democratic congressman who’s become soft and profligate in his incumbency, but the person he becomes when he’s challenged by a candidate backed by two corporate titans who are stand-ins for the Koch brothers, is far worse. Cam runs nasty ads about his opponent, punches a baby, seduces his rival’s wife, and in an ultimate act of self-destruction, attempts snake-handling in an effort to bolster his credentials as a Christian and ends up horribly snake-bit for his efforts. Ultimately, Cam does his best work after pulling out of the race and going to work for his challenger as the other man’s chief of staff: they work together to take down the corrupt financiers who pitted them against each other in the first place, exposing the brothers’ plans to abuse American workers. Having the title at the pinnacle of the organizational chart doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be happy with the content of your job, and getting obsessed with maintaining it to the exclusion of all other efforts can be a quick path to embarrassing yourself.
Ferrell’s characters learn similar lessons even in minor roles, like his turn as a rising Bob Wooward in the fantastically funny Watergate satire Dick, or the arrogant figure skater Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory. Time and time again, Ferrell’s manly men are tripped up by their own puffery, ruining relationships they didn’t realize they valued until after they’d smashed them, and coasting on privilege that gives them an excuse not to develop skills that would make them better news anchors, better race-car drivers, and better partners and fathers, too. As Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) tells his driver son of the first-or-last motto Ricky picked up from his father, “Oh hell, Son, I was high that day. That doesn’t make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth… hell you can even be fifth.” The real question that toxic masculinity prevents men from asking themselves is where they want to be. And it’s a query that Ferrell has raised more often, and better, than any other comedian working today.