It may have been a really, really ridiculously good-looking idea on paper, but Ben Stiller’s attempt to bring back one of his more beloved creations feels like a cheap designer knockoff in “Zoolander 2.” Falling well below the standards of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2014) in the long-delayed-sequel sweepstakes, this flailing follow-up drags the endearingly dim-witted Derek Zoolander out of retirement for an extended Roman holiday, backed by a parade of real-life celebrities and fashion-world denizens who are now very much in on the joke. If only that joke weren’t so far past its sell-by date: The results may delight those who believe recycled gags and endless cameos to be the very essence of great screen comedy, but everyone else will likely recognize Stiller’s wannabe Magnum opus as a disappointment-slash-misfire, the orange mocha crappuccino of movie sequels.
Just as “Anchorman 2” nearly doubled the worldwide gross of its 2004 predecessor, so Paramount’s extravagantly marketed Feb. 12 release should handily overtake the original “Zoolander’s” $60 million domestic haul, capitalizing on the now-widespread love for a movie (Terrence Malick is one of its biggest fans) that didn’t really hit its stride, culturally and commercially, until it entered the home-viewing market. A highly quotable, deliriously off-the-wall spoof that approached its targets with a weird mix of sweetness and savagery, “Zoolander” understandably took some time finding its audience. Bowing mere weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Stiller’s movie provided some welcome distraction from a national trauma, even if a plot twist involving an assassination attempt on the Malaysian prime minister struck some as unforgivably tasteless (notably Roger Ebert, though he reversed his stance a few years later).
While it provided a convenient hook on which to hang one inspired burst of silliness after another, the espionage plot was easily the first film’s least compelling element. There’s even more tiresome international intrigue afoot in “Zoolander 2,” which kicks off with Justin Bieber being chased, cornered and machine-gunned to death — a violently protracted tableau that non-Beliebers will probably have converted into GIFs by week’s end. Before he succumbs, the bullet-riddled pop star manages to post one last selfie on Instagram, his features frozen in what appears to be Derek Zoolander’s famous brow-furrowed, pouty-lipped Blue Steel look (the impossibility of distinguishing among all these near-identical poses remains a key running gag).
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Unfortunately, no one has seen Zoolander in years. As we learn in a lengthy catch-up sequence, the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too fell on hard times shortly after it was built, separating our hero from his love interest, Matilda (Christine Taylor, blink and you miss her), and from their young son, Derek Jr. Miserable and forgotten, Zoolander has gone into self-imposed exile in the frigid northern wilds (of New Jersey), huddling alone in a cabin like the world’s best-coiffed mountain man. Meanwhile, his estranged friend and ex-rival, Hansel (Owen Wilson), quit modeling after being disfigured in a freak accident, and now spends his days in the parched dunes (of Malibu), wearing a gold mask and having group sex like some yoga-loving Phantom of the Orgy.
And so it’s up to Billy Zane (once again playing himself) to track down these two feuding former Fabios and drag them back into the world of high fashion — specifically, to Rome, where they’re welcomed into the enclave of a vaguely sinister, Donatella Versace-esque fashion empress named Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, all trout lips and tortured vowels). Alexanya’s lavish, structurally precarious outfits represent by far the most outlandish of Leesa Evan’s cheeky costume designs, though for sheer style it’s hard to beat the form-fitting crimson jumpsuit worn by Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz), a special agent with “Interpol’s Global Fashion Division” who’s trying to find out who’s killing off Bieber, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Demi Lovato, Lenny Kravitz and the world’s other most beautiful people.
If that already sounds too plotty by half, we haven’t even gotten to the inevitable return of Zoolander’s clown-haired old nemesis, Mugatu (Will Ferrell, energetically nasty as ever), or the “Da Vinci Code”-style legend of a secret bloodline that may hold the key to eternal youth. And then there’s the small matter of the long-lost Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), a pudgy, socially awkward kid who’s been holed up for years at an orphanage in (you guessed it) Rome. Their reunion is anything but a happy one. The boy has nothing but contempt for the dad who abandoned him, while Zoolander is ready to disown his son on the basis of the boy’s less-than-perfect physique: “I’m seriously thinking my fat son might be a terrible person.”
That’s one of the few halfway memorable lines in a script (penned by Stiller, Justin Theroux, John Hamburg and Nicholas Stoller) that otherwise takes what was once breezily enjoyable, if hit-or-miss, and turns it into something that feels awfully close to drudgery. Really, the dumb thing about “Zoolander 2” is that it isn’t nearly dumb enough: Rather than coasting along on a stream of blissful comic idiocy, it cobbles together a busy skein of twists and complications, as if the mental strain of following along might distract us from how crushingly unfunny it is. Things bog down further still with the incessant, obligatory callbacks to the original — look, it’s the Evil DJ! The assistant with the foamy latte! Did we mention Billy Zane? — which land with all the freshness of last decade’s fashion craze. Call it fan service or franchise continuity, but the result is a movie that basically telegraphed its best material 15 years in advance.
Counteracting that tendency to some extent, the writers aim to deliver an up-to-the-minute spoof on the excesses of the fashion industry and the general toxicity of 21st-century celebrity culture. Much of this is embodied by Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), an insufferable young anti-fashion designer who’s like all your worst hipster-douchebag nightmares rolled into one; he’s the kind of forward thinker who would set up a catwalk on an industrial waste site rather than at one of Rome’s famous landmarks (a few of which, including the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and Cinecitta Studios, register fleetingly in d.p. Dan Mindel’s drive-by lensing). Annoying as he is, Atari serves as a reminder that the world of haute couture — already an easy target when Stiller first introduced us to Derek Zoolander at the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards — has long since become its own parody of itself, making any attempt at spoofery redundant at best.
The first “Zoolander” recognized this: It worked not by mocking the absurdity of the fashion scene, but by positioning Stiller and Wilson as absurd, improbably successful figures within that scene. Some (but not much) of the actors’ combative chemistry remains here, and Stiller retains his gift for the well-chosen malapropism, whether he’s describing himself as a “laughingstick” or making unintentional reference to a white-supremacist group. But as actor and director, he seems to exhibit no overarching vision this time around, no sense of driving inspiration or even basic comic timing; the darkly subversive sensibility behind “The Cable Guy” and the few inspired patches of “Tropic Thunder” is entirely absent here.
Perhaps that’s only to be expected from what ultimately feels less like a movie than an exercise in cross-promotional synergy — an excuse for Stiller and Wilson to don Valentino trenchcoats and sashay their way through Paris Fashion Week, blurring the line between a gag and a photo op. Not that the fashion industry’s embrace/co-opting of the “Zoolander” phenomenon would matter if the end product were a movie worthy of an audience’s love. There may not be enough satirical bite to “Zoolander 2,” but there isn’t enough honest affection or silliness, either: It just comes across as toothless and scattershot, whether it’s trotting out Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender-ambivalent supermodel named All, or padding the later scenes with self-mocking (really self-flattering) cameos by Valentino, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger and Anna Wintour.
Those brief cutaways — which are so poorly integrated they might have been filmed in a Siberian meat locker — are at least more germane than the surreally random one-scene appearances of celebrities like Katy Perry, Susan Sarandon, Sting and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is sadly unable to rationalize the movie’s existence from a cosmological point of view. Presumably Donald Trump was too busy campaigning to make a return visit, but whatever he was up to, it was assuredly more entertaining than this.