‘Zoolander 2’ Review: This Comedy Sequel Will Leave You Feeling Blue (Steel)
Is there a documented record for the most celebrity cameos in a single film? If there was, Zoolander 2 just broke it. The film opens with the murder of Justin Bieber and closes with ... well, without spoiling it, let’s say it closes with a whole slew of more cameos, and there’s at least 20 more in between. These are some of the biggest names from the world of fashion, music, TV, film, journalism, and pop culture. If Zoolander 2 was a party, the guest list alone would make it the greatest ever thrown. But Zoolander 2 is not a party. It is a movie. A bad movie. Never have so many cool people appeared in something so patently lame — or, as idiot male model Derek Zoolander mispronounces it, “luh-may.”
That’s a bit of a surprise; the first Zoolander, from 2001, is one of the funniest and most rewatchable comedies of its era, and this sequel brings back most of they key creative voices from the first film, including stars Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and, most importantly Ben Stiller, who plays Zoolander and directed and co-wrote both movies. Previously, Zoolander was the king of the fashion world, at least until a rivalry with another male model named Hansel (Wilson) threatened to derail his career. Eventually Zoolander and Hansel patched things up and worked together to take down homicidal fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu (Ferrell), who was brainwashing male models to use as political assassins. Freed of Mugatu’s programming (and his hideous “Derelicte” clothing line), everyone lived happily ever after.
Or at least they did until this sequel, which reveals that shortly after the events of the first movie, Zoolander’s wife (Stiller’s real-life wife Christine Taylor) was killed in a tragic accident that also ruined Hansel’s beautiful face and resulted in the government declaring Zoolander an unfit father and taking his son, Derek Jr., away from him. Disgraced and directionless, Derek went into hiding for 15 years, until an offer to model for elite designer Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig), which might help him get his son back. Somehow this all connects to the murder of Bieber and several other celebrities who all died with Zoolander’s patented “Blue Steel” look on their faces, a case under investigation by Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz), a member of Italy’s Fashion Police (tee hee). And Mugatu’s still lurking in the shadows too, looking for revenge.
The story’s not exactly Dostoevsky, but then neither was Zoolander. But at least in the first film, the occasional cameos were there to enhance the movie’s clever satire of celebrity culture and the gaudy excesses of the fashion world. Here they exist to keep the audience distracted from the fact that there is no satire, clever or otherwise, and almost no actual jokes. Pay no attention to the tedious mockery of Zoolander’s chubby son (Cyrus Arnold)! Look! It’s co-writer Justin Theroux as the headmaster of a bizarre Italian orphanage! When he runs out of famous people to trot out (which isn’t often), Stiller relies on wacky clothing and callbacks to the first movie. Desperation hangs in the air like an expensive men’s cologne Derek would advertise with a flash of Blue Steel.
Cruz doesn’t get any funny lines — because no one gets any funny lines — but she nails the series’ sweetly dopey tone; it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie with a sharper script where that character becomes as beloved as Mugatu or Hansel. A few gags land (Wiig’s bizarre accent, which does for vowels what Christopher Walken does for punctuation, is cute), but so many don’t. Whole characters come and go without delivering a single laugh. Kyle Mooney plays Don Atari, a double-talking designer who represents the fashion world’s evolution since Zoolander’s retirement, but other than constantly contradicting himself, he has nothing to do. There’s a protracted riff on this wacky group of characters Hansel’s been sleeping with as a sort of live-in orgy; it flops at the start, but they keep dragging it out right to the end of the film. And Fred Armisen has a disastrous role as Atoz’s 11-year-old social media guru; his real face is digitally grafted onto a child’s body in an effect that is scary enough to reuse, without a single alteration, as the villain in a bloody horror movie. Even Will Ferrell looks lost. When one of the funniest men alive can’t find anything to work with in your movie, you know you’re in deep trouble.
Stiller is a great comedian and an underrated director, but Zoolander 2 got away from him, maybe right from the movie’s conception. His projects typically have strong central concepts and clear satirical targets, like the clueless fashionistas in the first Zoolander or the cynical Hollywood filmmakers in Tropic Thunder. The only thing Zoolander 2 makes fun of is the first movie, with characters constantly mocking Derek and Hansel for being old and out of touch (and “luh-may”). It seems like the sequel will eventually prove that these characters still have value in a world of social media and YouTube stars. But Zoolander 2 is so disappointing it actually makes a more compelling case that its heroes are washed-up after all. When Mugatu tells Zoolander “It doesn’t hold up, does it?” at one point, it’s a joke that resonates with a painful truth. Whoever cut together that first trailer for this movie and made it look genuinely funny deserves an Honorary Oscar for unparalleled achievement in the field of editing.