So 15 Years Ago: Smartly stupid moments are too widely spaced in “Zoolander 2”

Zoolander 2 (2016)
102 min., rated PG-13.

Fifteen years ago, “Zoolander” had a moment, but it didn’t find a cult audience until hitting home video. There was novelty in the existence of empty-headed but “ridiculously good-looking” male model Derek Zoolander, a character whom Ben Stiller originally created for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards, and the film itself offered an inspired mix of satirical absurdity and broad, silly lunacy. The idea of making a “Zoolander 2” had been bouncing around in development since 2008, but according to co-writer and director Ben Stiller, he wanted the sequel to be fresh and worthy of the quotable 2001 original. As for “Zoolander 2,” it produces more than a few belly laughs, proving a stoopid, anything-goes attitude isn’t yet out of fashion in 2016, but it’s also pretty disposable with less rewatchability. One keeps assuming the best jokes are on their way, although they never really take the runway.

Time has been cruel to Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), as he is no longer a world-class model but still that level of idiot and narcissist. He’s survived by wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), who was crushed by the collapse of Manhattan’s Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too, and considered an unfit parent to his son Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who’s now in an orphanage in Rome. In the interim, Derek has gone into seclusion, living life as a “hermit crab,” and his former model rival/friend, Hansel (Owen Wilson), suffered a facial injury that ended his career and sent him into hiding with his married orgy. When both are invited by fashionista Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) to Rome to strut on the runway again, Derek and Hansel reunite and experience what it feels like to be obsolete as washed-up models. Meanwhile, Interpol’s Fashion Police division, Valentina (Penélope Cruz), comes in to investigate a series of pop-star murders that involves Derek’s most proudly patented “blue steel” facial expression from his once-legendary career. If that weren’t enough, Derek intends to reunite with Derek Jr., and arch-nemesis Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is ready to escape from prison.

In a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth—the script is credited to Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg—“Zoolander 2” is a predominantly spotty follow-up that makes the first film look like it was written with clockwork precision. For this brand of comedy to work, the dumb humor has to be smartly handled, or else it is just dumb. Luckily, director and co-writer Ben Stiller and his band of screenwriters (Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg) try upping the ante with a plot so knowingly overstuffed, preposterous and even convoluted that, by design, it emulates an espionage action blockbuster. And, any movie that begins with the celebrity assassination of Justin Bieber (played by a self-deprecating Justin Bieber) earns points, and the length of time his death goes on for is ballsy and darkly funny. From there, Derek and Hansel’s “where they are now” scenes are amusing; for one, “extreme Northern New Jersey,” where Derek has been hiding, is presented as the mountainous arctic.  

“Zoolander 2” also has plenty of callbacks to its predecessor—there’s a musical cue to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” and then Derek goes for an orange mocha frappuccino alternative to the beat of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”—and, once again, a plethora of star cameos. Some are random enough to carry some sort of loopy unpredictability—Billy Zane, of all people, shows up—and others are appropriate within the fashion world but just not that clever. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are still game, but the two clear standouts are the villains. Will Ferrell, reprising his campy Mugatu, gets to comment on the stupidity of our heroes and takes deliciously mean shots at several famous fashion designers. A nearly unrecognizable Kristen Wiig is a hoot without saying a word (which is hilariously incomprehensible most of the time) as floating, flamboyantly dressed plastic-surgery nightmare Alexanya Atoz. Penélope Cruz looks striking as ever and is game to be in on the joke, but she isn’t really given the chance to make much of an impression as Valentina, a va-va-voomy Interpol agent who failed as a swimsuit model because of her buxomness.

The laughs are occasionally there, but they don’t come regularly enough. When the comedic bits don’t land, they really don’t land. Anything with SNL's Kyle Mooney as an ironic hipster-thug designer is nails-on-the-chalkboard obnoxious. The sight of Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender-ambiguous, monotone-speaking model named “All” is amusing, primarily from seeing the dignified actor posing without eyebrows and sporting long, straight, dark hair, but who exactly is the joke targeting? A sight strange enough to earn a chuckle, Fred Armisen shows up as an 11-year-old named Vip—or at least his face is superimposed on an 11-year-old’s body—but he’s never heard from again like a setup without a punchline. A running gag concerning Hansel and his commitment to an orgy gets stale quickly, but there is a sly reference to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in there. Some general goofiness sometimes hits, too, like Kiefer Sutherland popping up as one of Hansel’s baby mamas and Mugatu’s easy prison escape. Like other long-gestating, belated comedy sequels (i.e. 2013’s “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” and 2014’s “Dumb and Dumber To”), “Zoolander 2” is almost better than what you’re expecting but not the return engagement that’s worth such a wait. 

Grade: C +