Making a sequel to any movie is a gamble, even (or perhaps especially) if the first movie was a huge hit. There’s always the chance that people aren’t going to connect to it again or it won’t have the same spark. In the case of Ben Stiller‘s 2001 film Zoolander, the movie proved a surprise smash with staying power, even reportedly being uber arthouse director Terrence Malick’s favorite movie of all time(?). And yet, 15 years is a really, really long time to wait for Zoolander 2; would it delight in the same way or skewer pop culture as sharply? Unfortunately, with the exception of a few genuine laughs, it feels very “old” and “la-may.”
Stiller’s directorial career is small, but does offer some interesting entries. His 1994 film Reality Bites is an indie darling, both The Cable Guy and the first Zoolander have become cult classics, and his 2008 Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder made me laugh harder than almost any other trip to the cinema. Stiller’s most recent film was 2013’s underperforming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which seemed like an effort to prove he could make slightly more “important” films. Maybe that’s why a sequel to Zoolander seems so out of place, and why a lot of the jokes feel like they come from an older guy trying to recapture something.
The plot of the film finds Stiller’s Derek Zoolander, once the number one fashion model in the world, having gone into hiding as a result of some unfortunate events following the ending of the first movie. However, when someone begins killing off pop stars—who all leave the world with the parting gift of death-selfies featuring one of Zoolander’s patented looks—the Fashion Police division of Interpol, led by former swimsuit model Penelope Cruz, sets out to find the Z man. Derek is brought to Rome through a weird invitation from the new Queen of Design (played with puddy-faced glee by Kristen Wiig, who mispronounces every single word of her dialogue), which ties into a subplot involving trying to find his estranged son, and the intrigue continues from there.
Meanwhile, Zoolander’s former rival Hansel (Owen Wilson) is also living the reclusive lifestyle, struggling with the committed relationship he’s having with the nine people and a goat (that group includes Kiefer Sutherland playing himself) that made up his most recent orgy. Hansel too is brought to Rome through similar shady-weird circumstances and quickly reunites with Derek. The two of them soon prove to be the only ones not caught up with the fashion trends of 2016, which are represented best by Kyle Mooney playing an uber hipster designer who hates everything but loves it just the same. To top it off, Mooney’s character’s muse is someone called All (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) who is. That’s it; All just is.
For most of the runtime of this movie, I had a hard time even mustering a smile at the absurdity, stretched-thin premises, and entirely too on-the-nose jokes about the modern world. The mystery plot wasn’t really working, the stuff about Zoolander’s overweight teenage son wasn’t working, and I had resigned myself to the fact that the movie wasn’t going to do anything for me at all aside from passing 104 minutes. But then, Will Ferrell finally, mercifully showed up as criminal mastermind and former fashion magnate Mugatu and the whole film changed. I was having a hard time not laughing at his every line and shouted insult. I can’t decide if it was a mistake to keep Ferrell out of the movie for so long or a stroke of genius, because he made the end of the movie much more enjoyable.
Despite Ferrell’s brilliance, and good performances from Wilson and Cruz, the movie does ultimately fall short… even of the first movie which was only moderately successful. The joke of the movie is that Zoolander is out of touch but still has it, but the movie doesn’t do a good job with proving the second part. There’s really nothing about the character of Derek Zoolander that’s very appealing—he’s not even charming in a stupid way; he’s just stupid. And even though the cameos by 38 million celebrities (including one famous nerd who REALLY makes a good impression) can be occasionally enjoyable, they don’t stand in for what we need from this movie: to side with our main character. We simply don’t.
Make a Mugatu movie and I’ll be there in an instant; Zoolander 2 mostly has trouble staying on the sequel catwalk.
Image: Paramount Pictures
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!