Of Anchors and Animals
In my work on natural history cinema and Hollywood romantic comedy, I observed that Failure to Launch (Tom Dey, 2006), a standard genre film starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker, uses the animal world as a guide for human relationships. At the beginning of the film, squirrels assault McConaughey and his friends for being flippant with their relationships; at the end, after he and Parker have learned the pleasures of long-term monogamy, they swim on their honeymoon in perfect harmony with a pod of dolphins. The new Ron Burgundy film starring Will Ferrell, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues makes Failure to Launch look like a celebration of sooty industrialization. In virtually every scene, the animal world is invoked to frame the dysfunctional world of humans.
Sometimes, this comedy works to tremendous effect, offering what Sigmund Freud calls tendentious jokes, laden with political meaning. In my favorite, which occurs at the beginning of the film, a down on his luck Burgundy, formerly a star anchorman at a local San Diego television affiliate, but passed over for a network job by his wife, Veronica (played by Christina Applegate), drunkenly stumbles through his pathetic job announcing shows at Sea World, the city’s premier theme park. As security comes to escort him from the premises, he insults the dolphins, observing that they merely “fart out of their heads.” As he is dragged away, he screams, “I’d eat dolphin if it were legal.”
As Susan G. Davis argues in her terrific critique of aquatic theme parks, Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, beer companies such as Anheuser-Busch shape our encounter with nature in highly commercial ways that skew our understanding of the human-animal boundary. Like the upcoming Coca-Cola polar bears movie, Sea World produces a supportive discourse of the nuclear family via an anthropomorphic presentation of animals. One of Sea World’s featured shows is about a walrus, Uncle Smedly involved in a murder mystery with his family of seals and otters, only slightly more palatable than the signature event, “Believe,” a grotesque attempt to position the imprisonment of a gigantic killer whale in a fabricated tank as a religious experience. Thus, Ron Burgundy’s drunken tirade assaults the Sea World experience, producing a critical counter-discourse rarely seen outside of PETA animal rights protests, which are largely ignored by the American public, who follow the herd to support such corporate ventures with massive attendance.
Given that idiocy in the real world, Anchorman 2’s hijinks pale in comparison; I want to argue that the film uses a surprisingly extensive vocabulary in exploring the significance of animals to the lives of humans. The two other Sea World employees that we see in the scene—two cute female trainers there to explain to the families in the audience the glory of dolphins—present the pro-family face of the beer company, covering up the corporate mechanisms of profit-making. Drunken Ron exposes these linkages, demonstrating his own animal nature as he attempts to kiss the trainers. Most importantly, the film is savvy enough to present a series of kids who take most offense to Ron’s behavior. They shout at him how much they hate him for having destroyed their pleasure at the dolphins performing for their pleasure. Like the hilarious cursing baby skit, “The Landlord” on director Adam McKay and Ferrell’s website, “Funny or Die,” the kids are the ones who enforce societal norms against the Ferrell’s troublemaking antics.
It will surely be the case that narrow-minded critics will savage Anchorman 2. We live in a culture that celebrates tragedy as important and comedy as frivolous. Furthermore, the first Anchorman movie was nothing special, having developed a cult audience via incessant play on cable television. However, this new film is shockingly aggressive in its scope. It is two hours long, well over thirty minutes too long for a standard Hollywood comedy. That length forces the film to move beyond jokes and a thin plot spine. In addition to the film’s exploration of the rise of infotainment and twenty-four hour cable news, I counted twenty-two separate animal references, varying attempts to mine humor out of the absurdity of these anarchic humans’ interactions with the world around them.
Here is a brief list, to demonstrate that my observation about Sea World is not a particularly anomalous moment in the film. Ron’s friend Champ Kind, the sportscaster now runs a chicken restaurant that serves bats, what he calls “the chicken of the cave.” Ron’s fellow investigative reporter, Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) has become a famous cat photographer. The weatherman, Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell) is thought to have died by following a bird out to sea to pet it, and then drowning. While riding in Ron’s RV, the very much alive Brick, oddly brain dead, mistakes Ron’s dog for a hairy old man. At their New York cable news station, GNN, Brick meets Chani (Kristen Wiig), his soul mate, who demonstrates to him, “the face I make when I see a snake made out of candy,” an expression which transforms from horror at the animal to the pleasure of eating sweets. Chani repeatedly summons the animal world in wooing Brick. She later reports, “Last night a bird chased me and I wished it was you.” Ron’s estranged wife Veronica argues that he is an unfit father because he took his young son, Walter to a cockfight, breaking a world record by predicting the winner five times. Ron’s friends laugh hysterically at a Garfield comic book. Ron celebrates “The Grey Mongoose” brand of condom, renowned for its slithering qualities. Kench Allenby, the founder of GNN (a parody of Ted Turner’s Cable News Network) is also a parody of airline mogul Richard Branson: in the film, Allenby also owns Koala Airlines; unlike the cute bears from down under, Allenby’s planes leak metallic parts. When Ron inadvertently invents infotainment news in the early 1980s, the serious journalist Veronica laments that her competitors’ news stories are “all about animals.” Later in the film, Ron, suddenly stricken with blindness explains, “I tried to brush my teeth with a live lobster.” When Ron’s son, Walter finds a shark trapped in a net near the lighthouse where his blinded father now lives, they nurse the sea predator back to health and then release him into the wild, a parody of Free Willy. At the film’s climax, when all of the 1980s newscasters meet in Central Park for a rumble, a respected newsman played by Harrison Ford turns into a werewolf. The History Channel hosts bring a minotaur to the rumble, which the other newscasters dismiss as “not even history; it’s mythology.” And so on.
For a film scholar, the most interesting animal scene in Anchorman 2 occurs early in the film when Ron drives his crew across the country to their new jobs at GNN in New York. When the RV crashes, Ron’s collection of scorpions is let loose, one of which finds its way into Ron’s mouth as the vehicle is upended. One of the most significant appearances of scorpions in film history occurs at the beginning of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Surrealist masterpiece, L’Age D’Or (1930). The avant-garde artists begin the film with natural history footage of scorpions fighting each other in close-up. Parodic intertitles have us admire the animals’ claws, “organs of battle and information.”
The Surrealists loved popular Hollywood comedy, especially the work of the silent slapstick comedians, because they exposed a world that seemed rational as anything but. Anchorman 2, like many great out of control Hollywood comedies works in this surrealist tradition. It is by no means a great film. In fact, I almost walked out at one point. In a shockingly racist subplot, Ron’s African-American boss, Linda (Meagan Good) incomprehensibly seduces Ron. The plotline starts out as a pretty clever engagement with American fears of miscegenation: McKay cuts from Ron and Linda having sex for the first time to the ground-breaking interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, a moment celebrated by no less than Martin Luther King, Jr. The subplot becomes unbearable, worse than one of Seth McFarlane’s racist and sexist rants. When Linda takes Ron to a dinner with her middle-class family, Ron assumes that all black people are ghetto trash, calling Linda’s female relatives “pipe-hitting bitches.” The scene is a disgusting dud, nearly bringing the film to a dead halt. It makes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner look like King Lear. If anyone doubts how terrible the scene is, compare it to a similar scene that is both funny and satirical. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Annie brings nebbish Alvy Singer to her WASP family. During the awkward dinner in which the hapless Jew is forced by the circumstance to eat ham, Allen shows us what Alvy experiences, a feeling of alienation as he imagines how they see him, wearing the garb of the devout, orthodox Hasidem.
Despite this incomprehensibly terrible misstep of a subplot, Anchorman 2 is a complex comedy that has grandiose historical ambitions. It argues that idiots like Ron Burgundy ruined television news, popularizing infotainment at the expense of hard-hitting investigative journalism. While the film is not one of the greatest comedies ever made, its extensive exploration of the animal world as a frame for reading the frailties of human relationships makes the film far better than most of the overrated Oscar fare with which we are bombarded every December.
– Walter Metz