Socio-political messages from an unlikely place: “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”

I’ve just spent two hours I’ll never get back watching “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.” We had intended to go to a showing of another movie set in the 1980s—“American Hustle”—but I misread the schedule—a dimwitted move worthy of the Ron Burgundy character– and settled for something we had no intention of ever paying for. Overall, it’s a wreck of a movie, overloaded with pointless, slapstick comedy, Steve Carrell’s dreadful scenes as an idiotic dolt, a pasted-in sendup of syrupy animal-rescue movies, jokes about being blind, and a bizarre and unfunny blow-‘em-up battle royale that serves as a cameo showcase for all the Hollywood and Saturday Night Live stars that producer Judd Apatow is able–because of his connections and reputation– to round up.

Every once in a while, though, a bit of social satire manages to wangle its way in. So it shouldn’t be a total loss, and to atone for my misspent time, I’m going to try to wrestle a socio-political lesson or four from this silly movie of meager merit.

Socio-political lesson #1: Plus ca change

“Anchorman 2,” set in 1980, offers a sendup of the fashions, social mores and sexual politics of the day. Yup, the huge shoulder pads, plaid trousers and big-ass hair are amusing period touches. The sad thing is, though, that while external fashions have changed, the ostensibly dated bad behavior of the principal characters isn’t really all that antiquated. Intentionally or not, the writers use the sexism, racism and homophobia of the 1980s as a way of showing us that things haven’t changed much.

I’m not sure that Will Ferrell, his writing partner Adam McKay, and Apatow [the current king of bad-boy comedy] had a plan that sophisticated. Basically, I think they just wrote what they thought was funny—and a lot of what they think gets laughs in 2014 are penis and vagina jokes. That’s an indication that things are the same as they always have been: Adolescent humor remains adolescent humor. The sad reality is that a lot of chronologically grownup boys [Apatow is 46] appear never to get past that phase, and that our popular culture rewards them for their developmentally arrested sense of humor.

Socio-political lesson #2: Post-racial America? Nope.

Apatow and the [white] guys who wrote this movie use racial issues as an opportunity for satire and a few uneasy laughs. This is the part of this very uneven movie that manages to achieve some effective social commentary. And, right here, I’m going to have to admit that I did, indeed, laugh along with the movie in some of the scenes spoofing racist behavior.

One thing they got right was white people’s continuing discomfort in the presence of African-Americans. Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy, upon meeting his female, African-American boss, is totally flummoxed and can only uncontrollably and repeatedly blurt out what he’s really thinking—“Black.” Sad to say, that state of the white mind did not disappear with the end of the 1980s, and white people like me can all see a bit of ourselves in Burgundy’s behavior in that scene.

Later, Burgundy has dinner with his boss’s family. Burgundy’s exaggerated and clueless attempt to talk “black” at the table is absolutely cringe inducing. For anyone who has ever—consciously or unconsciously—tried to fit into a social situation by affecting what he or she thinks are “black” speech patterns, this scene is going to make you squirm. By the way, the scene got belly laughs from some African-American members of the audience, who have probably been on the receiving end of some pretty lame attempts at sounding cool, and who recognized the truth behind the joke.

Socio-political lesson #3: Homophobia [still] sells

One of Burgundy’s sidekicks is portrayed as a guy who craves—to excess—hugging other men, especially Burgundy. Naturally, in the homophobic atmosphere of the 1980s, that need is repulsive to Burgundy, and supposedly funny to today’s audience. This over-hugging shtick occurs, if I remember correctly, only twice in the movie, but unfortunately, because it’s supposed to make us laugh, its effect is to make fun of homosexuality, not of homophobia. I doubt that’s what the writers had in mind—well, I hope not, anyway—but that’s what we get.

Socio-political lesson #4: Crap sells

Anchorman 2’s essential plot point is the dumbing down of the news media. When Burgundy stumbles upon a live feed of a high-speed car chase and hypes it as breaking news, his ratings soar, outdrawing a serious interview with Yasser Arafat on a rival network. One of the jokes in this segment is that even Arafat wants to watch the car chase. It’s the beginning of the end of serious news coverage. Ironically, at the same time that the filmmakers are spoofing the silliness that passes for news, they’re presenting us with a movie that is silly itself– all the way to the bank.  Yes, crap sells. Get used to it.

Socio-political lesson #5: In Hollywood, as elsewhere, money and connections talk

How do you get a slapped-together movie like this made in Hollywood? Money and connections. Judd Apatow is a brand name. Will Ferrell—a comedy guy with very limited acting skills—is, nevertheless, a proven, ticket-selling, DVD–rental commodity. As exhibited by the fact of this movie’s existence, who you know—not how good you might be—continues to be the byword of opportunity in Hollywood and, by extension, in the wider world.

The power to say yes or no in Hollywood has been consolidated in recent years, rendering independent movies harder than ever to get off the ground. Similarly, American economic power also is being aggregated in smaller and smaller circles—and not just in finance, but also in the general corporate world. If you don’t start near the top of the ladder—if you’re a worker bee, or an immigrant, or if you don’t come from a wealthy family,  or if you don’t attend an elite school where you can make connections—you are playing on an economically unequal field, and your chances of moving up are constricted from the get-go.

In Hollywood, it’s getting harder and harder to successfully pitch a movie if you’re an unknown—even an extremely talented unknown with a unique idea and great skills. The franchise movies—the sequels, the prequels—the movies with the bankable stars and big opening weekends–get the green light, because the risk is lower and the product is predictable.  The parallels with politics are striking: Want to run for office? Better get some serious financing early on, because you’ll be judged by how much money you can raise in your opening fiscal quarter. Better yet, be an incumbent, because you’re a sequel, you’ve got connections and a track record of pleasing powerful political donors. And don’t present any unique “plot lines,” such as innovative policies that go beyond the comfort zone of the donor class.

I know, I know. It’s a movie, for gawd’s sake. Drawing big-ticket lessons from a movie as small-bore as this one is stretching things. Guilty as charged. I just can’t help myself.