The bend/break rules of comedic malleability are well established, but do not forget the dictum that schtick barely expands. If cinema has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nearly a zero-tolerance policy for the comedy sequel, one of the most difficult nuts to crack. And while comedy follow-ups are something Paramount Pictures have been curiously invested in of late (“Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”), “Zoolander 2,” Ben Stiller’s largely tiresome, predictable and belated sequel to his 2001 fashion-world comedy, is not a wise bet.
Mostly uninspired, overcooked, over-plotted, and cobbled together by a string of warmed-over jokes — credited to four writers, no less — “Zoolander 2” at least has the good sense to begin by killing Justin Bieber. But the goodwill earned in assassinating the world’s smuggest pop star is short-lived.
It’s revealed that Bieber has been gunned down by a secret cabal that is mysteriously terminating the world’s greatest pop stars. Interpol Fashion Agent Valentina (Penélope Cruz) mistakes Bieber’s final goodbye Instagram selfie (and similar dead poses by Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Lenny Kravitz, and more), as Derek Zoolander’s (Ben Stiller) old “Blue Steel” mien and eventually recruits him to help solve the riddle of who is executing all of the planet’s beautiful people. But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves. The movie also features a long-winded and overwrought prologue that explains Zoolander’s absence throughout the ’00s. Now a recluse, the former fashion icon has been disgraced, his family torn apart, and his friendship with Hansel (Owen Wilson) come to an end. It’s not until an invitation by fashion icon Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) that Zoolander is finally drawn back into the limelight — but of course, the rude awakening is that he’s now viewed as an insignificant also-ran.
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Ostensibly about trying to recapture one’s former glory, but really a movie fumbling around to say something about fatherhood, “Zoolander 2” fails rather badly at both themes. Penned by Stiller, John Hamburg, filmmaker Nicholas Stoller and Justin Theroux (who cameos again as the Evil DJ), “Zoolander 2” is a mess that leans hard on overestimated nostalgia and feels like a strained effort of several overworked drafts.
The fatherhood elements are seemingly crucial but ultimately disposable. Zoolander Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), the son he loses custody of in the mid-aughts, is mostly an afterthought. Jr. is more a sitcom-y plot device to give Derek an “emotional goal” than a living, breathing character, even by dim comedy standards. The movie’s familiar spy-story framework is banal, and its tale of redemption and friendship reclaimed is deeply unremarkable. All that is left are random jokes that often misfire.
Kristen Wiig’s terrific Donatella Versace send-up easily steals the show, with her ridiculously unintelligible Italian accent and leathery weathered fashionista face. And Will Ferrell grabs a few laughs as evil designer Jacobim Mugatu, out for revenge against his one-time fashion rival. But even Ferrell, the scene-stealing thief of the first movie, can only ludicrously shriek his way to so many laughs before the weak gags render the rest of his lines woefully flat.
What “Zoolander 2” miscalculates most, and what it did so well originally, is treading the fine line between funny and stupid. Moreover, the rehashed comedy misjudges the tolerance the audience has, 15 years after the fact, for monumentally stupid characters. “Zoolander 2” suffers from the obvious weakness of comedy sequels: We’ve already seen one version of this joke, but Hansel and Derek still behaving like morons gets old extremely fast. In fact, the dim-wittedness of Zoolander himself produces some of its lamest, most embarrassing jokes (Stiller’s character is a recluse, so he calls himself a “Hermit Crab,” har?).
With no compelling story to speak of, “Zoolander 2,” which brims with misplaced confidence, mistakenly assumes it can skate by on the charms of its actors and the audience’s interest in watching these clowns go through the same motions again. And sure, talented actors like Stiller, Wilson, Ferrell, and Wiig can produce maybe 10 minutes worth of amusing chuckles, if we’re being generous — but it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand this hardly adds up to a satisfying comedy.
Perhaps what’s saddest about “Zoolander 2” is how dated and irrelevant it often feels, never bothering to contemporize its characters or update its milieu. Its idea of a clever mic-drop joke is getting Neil DeGrasse Tyson to show up and deliver one of his now-patently-tedious science proclamations, which barely even makes absurd sense in this context. And the pop-culture cameos are relentless to the point of distraction, as if each and every scene needs at least one viable US Weekly-identifiable celebrity as some desperate means of constant self-validation. Katy Perry shows up for no discernible reason, as do three dozen other faces like Kiefer Sutherland, Sting, Olivia Munn, Ariana Grande, and at some point you just don’t bother remembering why Fred Armisen shows up as a CGI-d 11-year-old social-media wunderkind.
Worse, in an era of self-branding, instant gratification and makeshift digital fame, Stiller’s biggest missed opportunity is in failing to say something insightful (or even half-funny) about the social media age. Sure, “Zoolander 2” has a selfie-stick moment, but it’s just a lazy excuse to rehash the “Jittberbug” Wham sequence from the original. The best it can do with hipster culture is Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), an au courant designer who is just too much a caricature of millennial douchebaggery to be humorous.
Seemingly out of touch — though it tacks on A$AP Rocky at the end to rap out the credits because the kids like him, right? — everything, down to the appearance of Bieber and tin-eared transphobic jokes played through a fey Benedict Cumberbatch, feels like the spring collection of pop-culture references from 2013 and not at all of the moment.
“Zoolander 2” is no disaster, but it’s almost worse: a tedious jag that barely works as a disposable and mild if-its-on-cable-TV diversion. And the cruel, deep irony of it all is that while Stiller’s movie plays with notions of obsolescence for its vapid heroes, “Zoolander 2” isn’t even self-aware enough to extend the examination of relevancy to itself. [C-]