To what era does Derek Zoolander, the world-famous dim-bulb male model played by Ben Stiller, truly belong? Even when his eponymous feature film was released back in 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, its spoofing of the fashion industry was arguably a little late. After all, the character was created in 1996 (and reprised in 1997) for a filmed bit at the VH1 Fashion Awards, and the film goofed around with plenty of ’80s touchstones (“Relax”; Wham!). The plot of Zoolander involved the ousting of his signature pout in favor of the quasi-spiritual quasi-sexiness embodied by upstart model Hansel (Owen Wilson), so the fact that Zoolander 2 hinges on his further irrelevance is both appropriate for a 15-years-later sequel and noticeably redundant. Jokes about throwbacky tiny flip-phones no longer representing cutting-edge technology themselves feel slightly time-warped, especially when this sequel indulges in ’80s-sequel-style backpedaling to undo the previous film’s resolution in its opening minutes. Which decade is making fun of which decade again?
But Ben Stiller, as dumb as he plays Zoolander and as broad as his comic tastes can get, is a pretty smart guy, and his new comedy comments on the accelerated cycle of nostalgia (the same cycle, of course, that allows a sequel to a mildly successful 2001 movie to appear in 2016). When Zoolander and Hansel are invited to their first runway show in years (a tragic accident has sent them both into hiding), they meet a whole new crop of fashion-forward weirdos including Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, recognizable more for her swapped and exaggerated vowels than her heavily made-up appearance) and uber-hipster designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney). Atari’s appreciation for Zoolander and Hansel is aggressively ironic, couching derision inside appreciation inside more derision, all coated in a kind of nonsense smarm. He wears a T-shirt emblazoned with Zoolander’s face and a would-be catchphrase (“Let’s call Billy Zane!”) mere minutes after those words are first uttered, a point at which the movie’s ironic meta-anti-nostalgia begins to eat itself.
It’s a bizarre and pointless spectacle, but not an unamusing one. Characters like Alexanya and Atari feel very much like try-outs for Saturday Night Live characters—not surprising, given that at least four of the cast members have worked on that show. (That’s not even counting Stiller, who did a brief stint in 1989.) The SNL-ish performances are both goofy and vastly preferable to the movie’s litany of cameos. As with Anchorman 2, another years-later sequel to a cult Paramount comedy, the original movie’s slow-building popularity has apparently lent it cachet with pretty much the entire entertainment industry (and in this case, the fashion industry, too). The sequel attempts to top its predecessor’s memorable surprise appearances (Billy Zane, David Bowie, David Duchovny) with cameos upon cameos.
In mid-period Simpsons fashion, most of the special guest stars play themselves rather than actual characters, though a few game folks appear in vaguely altered guises. Some of these appearances are admittedly funny, like a celebrity member of the roving 10-person orgy that Hansel keeps as a collective romantic partner. Much of the star-collecting, though, takes the Zoolander character back to his roots as an awards-show novelty, and not in a good way. A few scenes play like some moderately diverting, half-baked MTV Movie Awards skit on a bigger screen.
If Zoolander 2 is often bigger and louder than the first film, Stiller does have a talent—largely dormant since Tropic Thunder and revived here—for parodying that same Hollywood bombast. He and cowriters Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg concoct an impressively ridiculous adventure that rolls in wacked-out mythology, pseudo-high-tech thrills, a sexy Interpol agent (Penelope Cruz), and the search for Zoolander’s long-lost son. (Again recalling Anchorman 2, the film’s reset struggles a bit with the wife-and-kid happy ending that the first film provided for its lead character, but eventually finds its groove.) Frankly, it’s a relief just to see Stiller and Wilson, a great comic duo who often appear in comedies beneath their considerable talents, clowning around in a movie with a higher hit-to-miss ratio than one of those Fockers or Night At The Museum sequels.
They’re joined in the final stretch by Will Ferrell, reprising his villainous Mugatu. The surprise, if it is one, has already been spoiled by the movie’s ad campaign, and is worth re-spoiling here to point out the blast of energy Ferrell provides when the movie’s energy starts to flag. It’s a shame the movie couldn’t get to Ferrell faster, or spend more time with newer players like Wiig or a very funny Mooney. Even for an intentionally nonsensical comedy, a lot of time is wasted on non-actor celebrities woodenly reciting their bit-part lines, and on calling back jokes from the first movie (more “Relax”; more Wham!). Zoolander 2 is very much a reunion movie; Stiller is too crowd-pleasing to turn his long-awaited revival into its own weird, mangy satirical thing. (He’s not Adam McKay, in other words.) But all of the time that’s passed and warped since the first movie has at least bought him the welcome opportunity to get silly again.