The original Zoolander taught post-9/11 America how to laugh again. Not really, but it helped, at least after its middling box office evolved into word-of-mouth warm feelings and good home viewing sales. Justin Theroux, the evil, “Relax”-spinning DJ from the first film and a co-writer and performer in the sequel, probably overstates it when he compares the original to an “underground film”, but it was refreshing to join in the ridicule of something inconsequential like the narcissism of the New York fashion world. And it was nice to have the old, weird Ben Stiller—from the better sketches on The Ben Stiller Show, hilarious bit parts in Heavyweights and Happy Gilmore, the odd little details like the Menendez brothers parody in The Cable Guy, and a two-off like the Derek Zoolander pieces he did for the VH1 Fashion Awards in the 90s—back, after so many straight roles in There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, etc.
Fifteen years after the fact, the sequel risks jeopardizing the goodwill generated by the pretty-good and unexpected original, recycling too many okay jokes and references while failing to update it for the times in any substantial way.
All involved have had other things going on in the interim, but such a long gap would ideally indicate a justification beyond a cash grab. Yet most of the effort seems to have been spent piling on cameos while one of the four writers intermittently tapped at the screenplay, injecting gags and over-complicating the plot. The crux is actually the same as before—Stiller’s vapid, breathtaking-face-pulling Derek used to face irrelevancy brought by his mellow-gold New Agey competitor Hansel (Owen Wilson). Now, they face it together against a new guard personified by hipster asshole designer Don Atari, played by Kyle Mooney in the movie’s funniest performance (“I don’t like you guys at all, dude… naw you’re so cool,” is typical of his self-negating speech pattern). Will Ferrell is back as hellborn fashion lord Mugatu, who “got hard” and even more murderous in prison, and he’s joined in villainry by Kristen Wiig’s Alexanaya Atoz, who pronounces things oddly (that’s the whole joke), since two or three characters are always better than one in sequels like this.
You might have seen some of Justin Bieber’s cameo scene in the trailer. It opens the movie on an anti-funny footing, its extreme violence reaching for cartoonishness but ending up reminiscent of the off-putting dictator-assassination storyline from the original. Continuing the mean-spiritedness, Christine Taylor’s character’s near-absence is explained by a jokey death, and her and Derek’s neglected son (Cyrus Arnold) is continually ridiculed as “fat” by his father and others, with only vague gestures made towards justifying it as a backdoor to reclaiming his pride. Not to spoil some of the surprises, but it was funny when the first movie made a mythical big deal out of Billy Zane; it’s less funny when he appears again here, and reappears. A certain pop-rock icon turns up as a monkish mentor to Hansel, dropping cryptic references to his songs. Like the Zane gag, his mere presence is supposed to elicit chuckles of recognition, and the same goes for the litany of cameos from the music, film and fashion worlds, which mean you get to feast on the screen charisma of luminaries like Tommy Hilfiger and Skrillex, though no one is ever skewered. As a member of the International Fashion Police, tagalong Penélope Cruz is admirably game for anything, slightly elevating this generally enervating attempt to recreate the restorative magic of September 28, 2001.