In a world where nostalgia is the driving force behind waves of sequels, reboots and remakes, I think it is fair to say that one of the last things I would expect to be continued would be Ben Stiller’s 2001 comedy masterpiece Zoolander. An effective and widely entertaining satire of the fashion and modelling industry, it was the kind of film tailor made for the comedic talents of Stiller, Wilson and every else involved.
But what else needed to be said? And why now, 15 years later, does Zoolander get revisited? Stiller of course is no stranger to ill-thought out and unnecessary sequels – that “Focker” franchise, Good Lord – but this seems like a stretch. How can you possibly hope to recapture the same energy and comedic vibe a decade and a half removed? Still, I was enough of a fan of Zoolander to head along to #2, in the hope that it would live up to its illustrious predecessor, and not flounder like the critical community claimed it did.
After his “Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too” collapses, killing his wife (Christine Taylor), disfiguring friend Hansel (Owen Wilson), and resulting in his son (Cyrus Arnold) being taken into care, modelling legend Derek Zoolander (Stiller) spends 15 years in solitude. When a host of beautiful celebrities are murdered in mysterious circumstances, Zoolander is called in by Interpol Agent Valentina (Penelope Cruz) to assist in the investigation, that will lead directly to maniacal villain Mugabe (Will Ferrell).
Late on in the course of Zoolander 2, there’s a moment when Will Ferrell’s cackling villain proclaims “It just doesn’t hold up”. He’s talking about a somewhat unhinged motivation for the central narrative, but it’s almost like the actor, or the writers, wanted to sneak in an acknowledgement that Zoolander 2 wasn’t up to scratch. Because this film isn’t great. Not 22% on Rotten Tomatoes levels of “isn’t great”, but just not good either. It is, unfortunately, everything that a 15 years later sequel is bound to be: tired, struggling for original ideas and aimless.
There’s a lot really missing here, including just an intangible energy that the original had, an edge or a charm. You can sort of feel it in a lot of scenes that seem strangely framed and shot, with too many awkward pauses, like cuts between actors in the same room were being shot out of sequence. That’s an absolute killer for comedy, and there is too much of a feeling in Zoolander 2, right from an overly lengthy re-introduction news sequence all the way to a similar ending, that the cast are sleepwalking towards an easy pay check.
Part of that is the constant, numbing re-treading of the things that made Zoolander great. The vapid crisis in self-confidence suffered by the main characters, a former ad campaign where Zoolander is half man, half animal, the “Jitterbug” sequence, catwalk shenanigans, caste-levels for model types, orgy jokes, a lame romantic plot and a constant string of self-absorbed character moments, that simply don’t have the same punch to them that they did back in 2001. Worse is when those kind of jokes are taken and expanded into an uncomfortable mess, epitomised by Hansel’s bizarre sub-plot, as he deals with relationship troubles with one of those weird orgies, treated as a single entity mouth-pieced by a very bland Kiefer Sutherland. Dark jokes abound in that sub-plot, and a lot of them just don’t land: I think it’s hard to craft anything funny out of a miscarriage for example (it’s possible, it’s just very hard) and Zoolander 2’s script is replete with similar things. It manages to avoid staying too long on any dud, thankfully, but they amass quickly.
There was something so incredibly amusing about models having “walk-off” battles to the tune of “Beat It” while being judged by a pen scribbling David Bowie, granting a satirical depth to an ultimately shallow industry. It was just stupid enough to be funny, but restrained enough that you could almost imagine it happening. Zoolander 2 lacks that restraint, with a plot about chosen ones, drinking blood to gain immortality and secret societies led by Sting, whose involvement is just a very unnecessary elaboration of a throw-away Hansel joke in the first one.
The film will occasionally make you laugh, in the few moments when it seems to remember its roots. Zoolander made hay out of phones getting continuously smaller, #2 has jokes on the current, opposite, state of affairs. Benedict Cumberbatch’s weird androgynous model is a brief, but funny insert. Kristin Wiig’s unnerving fashion mogul has one of the films best lines as she markets a beauty product based on feelings of wanting to murder prettier younger girls. Owen Wilson’s in-depth descriptions of sex with Derek Jr’s mom, in front of the kid, are the kind of jaw-dropping type of funny #2 needs more of. And the film actually manages to pick up a bit of steam when Will Ferrell comes on the scene, in a nicely tuned prison escape sequence that leads into a mostly entertaining third act.
But in so many other ways, the film is falling flat on its face. There’s a very strange emphasis on Cyrus Arnold as Zoolander’s estranged teenage son, and the kid’s trying, but he doesn’t really belong in this movie. Cruz’ character is a one-note entity, replacing the much more entertaining and engaging Christine Taylor as the chief love interest. And the film blows its load in terms of pointless celebrity cameos, many of whom turn up just for a single shot, and they rapidly become more of a weird distraction than a benefit. There’s a fairly new writing team in place here, bar Stiller himself, and so the film takes on the appearance of a copy instead of a sequel, like the writers are just trying to recapture what made the other one great, without realising that they are essentially making a parody of a parody.
Stiller and Wilson just don’t look like they really want to be in this movie. Stiller hasn’t had lean years recently, but I feel like he hasn’t made a truly stand-out critical/commercial smash since Tropic Thunder, and the same basically goes for Wilson, whose Midnight In Paris was five years ago now. On occasions the old magic comes back, but too many times the interactions between Zoolander and Hansel feel overly-staged and forced. Much of the rest of the cast is in the same boat: Cruz and Wiig have minor roles inflated by marketing and only Ferrell, of the main cast, looks like he is in anyway enthused about what going on, though having to play a man frustrated by being surrounded by idiots might have been an all too easy task. Kyle Mooney’s apathetic millennial is a treat while he is onscreen, but so many others just don’t have the time to make an impression.
I maybe sound like I am being overly-negative. I didn’t feel robbed of the price of a cinema ticket when the credits finally rolled on Zoolander 2. It has its funny moments, and it’s the kind of film that’s worth streaming or renting, but only for the bigger fans of the first one. It is absolutely a film that is attempting to get by on a sense of nostalgia, and the lack of effort in many parts is obvious. But I’ve seen worse, and more ill-advised, sequels that turned into absolute trainwrecks, but this really does have to be it. There isn’t anything left to wring out of this premise, and I hope Stiller realises that. Struggling in larger parts, but just competent enough to get by, Zoolander 2 gets only a reserved recommendation from me.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).