Released two weeks after 9/11, the first “Zoolander” arrived in theaters like a national catharsis; opening nearly 15 years later, the sequel plays like a throwback to embarrasing times. Backwards sexual politics passed off as crude humor worked better for the first movie, when the idea of “male models” casting feminine poses made for decent punchlines in a less enlightened cultural landscape. So it follows that when “Zoolander 2” tries to make fun of its outdated premise, the movie only chronicles its irrelevance.
Needless to say, the setup for the Ben Stiller-directed followup doesn’t so much as resurrect its chronically dumb pair of fashionistas Derek (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) as it reroutes them through the same jokes. The premise has a promising cockamamie start: Disgraced Derek Zoolander endures a self-imposed exile in the frozen tundra of “Extreme Northern New Jersey,” having turned his back on the world after an accident that ruined his family. (For sake of diehard “Zoolander” fans who can’t stay away, spoilers regarding the specifics of this disaster have been averted.) Wingman Hansel, injured in the absurd catastrophe caused by Derek’s neglect, has sagged into an outrageous bisexual lifestyle with a Malibu-based orgy inexplicably headed by Kiefer Sutherland. Billy Zane — yes, that Billy Zane — finds both men and delivers a message for them to attend a fashion event in Rome, where Derek attempts to reunite with his estranged son, and Hansel contemplates a post-orgy existence.
Whatever. The story of any “Zoolander” movie shouldn’t matter as much as the goofy inanity of its leads, and the constant irreverence that surrounds them, but nearly everything that worked in that regard the first time around registers as a retread; inspired lunacy is in short supply. Derek and Hansel’s extreme stupidity with respect to their own coolness is a one-note gag that never really goes anywhere, but that’s not even the biggest sin. When the movie amps up its crude humor, with clumsy bits about overweight and transgender characters, it lacks the comedic instincts to make its meanness count for something.
Even the simplest gags require context. In “Dumb and Dumber To,” when Harry Dunne learns that Lloyd Christmas has been pretending to be catatonic for 20 years just to prank his old pal, the humor stems from the sheer pointlessness of the stunt. The most “Zoolander” can muster is Derek and Hansel trying to drop terms like “dope” and sound hip. There’s some ingenuity to the hipster stereotype (Kyle Mooney) the pair meet in Rome, who insults the duo as a form of ironic praise — until the joke’s repeated a half dozen times.
Hardly any good idea goes anywhere. Big cameos from fashion icons such as Anna Wintour wink emptily at the audience. The return of poofy-haired “Zoolander” villain Mugatu (Will Ferrell) has some immediate slapstick appeal that never clicks with the surrounding plot. The addition of Penelope Cruz as a big-breasted former swimsuit model is a one-note sexist stunt in search of a funny hook.
But more than all those miscalculations, the comedy of “Zoolander 2” is strikingly out of touch. Compared to last year’s great transgender comedy “Tangerine,” a sleeper hit with broad appeal, the stale comedy built around Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender-neutral model who goes by “All” isn’t just crass; it’s empty. “Tangerine” keenly addressed the divide between its leads’ insular world and the harsh way society ostracizes them, but it never turned the confusion over their sexual identity into a joke. Transgressive comedy can do brilliant things, but dumb comedy that works overtime to sting its audience’s taste only gets cumbersome. The comedy of “Zoolander 2” has the same brutish simplicity as its characters.
In theory, the failings of a low comedy sequel should catch nobody by surprise these days, especially given the current standards for this material in the studio realm. But “Zoolander 2” isn’t just a comedy; it’s a Ben Stiller comedy. Until now, he’s deserved nearly as much credit for his career behind the camera as in front of it. “The Cable Guy” looks more and more prescient with age as screens truly do invade our private lives with the same pushiness as Jim Carrey’s creepy invader. Few recent Hollywood parodies assail the industry as incisively as “Tropic Thunder.” Even the tonally uneven “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” aimed for a romantic vision that hardly any American filmmakers attempt on a mass scale today. It may not look like it from the surface, but Stiller’s career has been filled with creative risks. “Zoolander 2,” on the other hand, feels like his misconceived attempt at a safe bet.
The only inspired moment in the sequel involves an early cameo by Justin Bieber, who faces execution by a masked assassin. Slowly bleeding out, the pop star musters just enough energy to take a final selfie for his Instagram feed before dropping dead. It’s exactly the clever jab at 21st century vanity this franchise should own; instead, with its delusions of comedic grandeur, it turns into the same navel-gazing that its satire has been designed point out.
“Zoolander 2” opens nationwide on February 12.