How could a movie that opens with the brutal murder of Justin Bieber be this bad?
There are any number of reasons why the vast majority of comedy sequels are borderline unwatchable, but there’s ultimately only one thing that the worst of them all share in common: They give the audience what they think they want, not what they don’t yet know they want. As Ricky Gervais once said before telling 47 consecutive jokes about the folly of religion: “The most important thing in comedy is surprise.”
The only truly surprising thing about Zoolander 2 is that it exists in the first place. (OK, that may not be entirely fair to say about a movie in which Kiefer Sutherland gets pregnant within the first quarter-hour.) Arriving 15 years after the original and having gleaned nothing from the parade of mediocre comedy sequels that’ve been released since, the follow-up to Terrence Malick’s favorite movie trades its predecessor’s absurdist joys for the same derivative bombast that made Anchorman 2 such a disappointing slog.
Zoolander 2 begins with its best gag, as a masked gunman on a motorcycle corners Bieber in a dark Rome alleyway and riddles the pop star with a hail of bullets; bleeding out on the cold cobblestones, Bieber flashes Derek Zoolander’s signature Blue Steel look and snaps a selfie. Of course, he can’t die until he finds the perfect Instagram filter for his final selfie, and it’s hilarious to watch him carefully flick through the various filters as the last moments of life trickle from his body. In tweaking the vanity of the Internet Age and the narcissism of celebrity culture, this pre-credit salvo is a clever update of what the original did best.
Bieber, it’s revealed, is but the latest victim in a rash of celebrities who have passed on to the great VIP area in the sky (RIP Bruce Springsteen); all of the icons having died with Blue Steel on their faces. There’s clearly a conspiracy afoot, and only Derek Zoolander (co-writer and director Ben Stiller) can stop it or whatever.
In the first of several beats borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back, the film locates its hero in the snowy tundra of extremely northern New Jersey, where Zoolander has lived since his wife’s tragic death in the collapse of a certain book-shaped building. After years of isolation, a knock at the door: It’s Billy Zane (natch), and he says that Zoolander must travel to Italy and visit fashion empress/Botox ghoul Alexanya Atoz (obviously Kristen Wiig). If the retired model wants to reunite with his estranged son while he’s over there, that would be cool, too. Zoolander is joined by his best friend and sometime nemesis, Hansel (Owen Wilson), who’s knocked up every member of his orgy (including the men) and leaps at the chance to spend some time abroad.
Whereas the first film adhered close enough to The Manchurian Candidate to maintain a modicum of internal logic, this sequel’s only point of reference is itself—much like its namesake, Zoolander 2 spends so much time looking in the mirror that it ultimately loses any sense of its surroundings. Stiller’s film quickly disintegrates into a desperate parade of one-note fashion gags, numbing set pieces, and random celebrity cameos (the worst of which belongs to Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose peerless knowledge of the cosmos doesn’t do him any good when it comes to comedy).
Things briefly promise to organize themselves when Zoolander meets his son, Derek Zoolander Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), and makes the horrifying discovery that the heir to his genes is on the heavier side. (“I’m seriously thinking my fat son might be a terrible person.”) But what at first appears to be an amusingly insipid riff on Mr. Holland’s Opus soon fizzles into some nonsense about the fountain of youth, an ancient prophecy, and a Sting subplot that puts off its lame punch line for so long that it assumes a nearly tantric delay. Not even ageless time lord Penélope Cruz—who steals the movie as an agent from Interpol’s Fashion Police—can steer things back on track. Her valiant efforts to give the film direction are torpedoed once and for all by the flamboyantly sinister Mugatu (Will Ferrell), whose return stops the movie cold; it’s never a good sign when the funniest character from the original is an albatross in the sequel.
Even the film’s best gags (i.e. Zoolander using a selfie stick from the driver’s seat of a speeding car) are disconnected from any larger concept of what the film is meant to be laughing at. Is it the vanity of the Internet Age, and how it’s weaponized the previously tamed narcissism of the celebrity set? Or, as suggested by the humiliating role that Atoz has Zoolander and Hansel play in her latest fashion show, is the target an aging generation of models and actors in a culture where everything that isn’t new is mocked for being old?
When our heroes meet the omnisexual new supermodel All (Benedict Cumberbatch), it’s impossible to tell who the joke is on: the trans community or our protagonists’ petrified identity in a world where progress is restless. For the first time, these really, really, ridiculously good-looking straight white men don’t see a place for them in an industry of appearances. But you won’t be laughing, and neither will Terrence Malick.