"Zoolander 2" Is Not So Hot Right Now

Ben Stiller’s belated “Zoolander” sequel has arrived, bringing with it a directive for all future comedy sequels. Forthwith, The Zoolander 2 Rule decrees that a comedy sequel must carry more jokes than the number of years since its predecessor, a mark that “Zoolander 2” inconceivably misses by double digits.

2001 was a model climate for mocking the fashion industry; a popularity near critical mass but with smartphones having yet put the self-satirizing profession at our fingertips. Many knew that much of the business was a joke, but it was a joke no one had told yet.

Enter writer, director, and comedian Ben Stiller and his dimwitted male model character, Derek Zoolander, from a series of late 90s VH1 shorts. The film that resulted was a box office disappointment, but it justly amassed a sizable following on home video, giving its eponymous dummy his rightful place in the pop culture lexicon.

But where “Zoolander” was about dummies, “Zoolander 2” is for them.

With nothing much left to say about fashion, Stiller’s sequel lazily swaps out satire for celebrity cameos, memorable musical cues (Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Donna Summer, Wham!) for different iterations of the same songs, and a childlike Derek for a cruel one. It’s not just that the movie has so few ideas; it’s that the ideas it does have are uniformly terrible.

Within ten minutes of a bizarrely violent opening (at the expense of newly revitalized pop star Justin Bieber), audiences are subjected to gags involving Elian Gonzalez, Susan Boyle, Lenny Kravitz, and Kiefer Sutherland, some of which would’ve been considered stale in 2001. In 2016, they’re positively fossilized.

The arthritic narrative mostly undoes the memorable ending of the original, bringing longtime retirees Derek and Hansel (Owen Wilson) out of hiding to model in Rome for a new fashion icon named Don Atari (Kevin Mooney), a braying hipster stereotype. The current “Saturday Night Live” cast member spends his screentime desperately scouring the wilderness of Stiller and company’s screenplay for something – anything – remotely humorous.

Mooney fails, as does every cast member not named Will Ferrell. Ferrell’s return as evil fashionista Mugatu is the pic’s lone bright spot, even as the actor doesn’t quite remember how to do the miscreant’s voice. Nevertheless, Mugatu’s best moments are little more than reminders of what made the first film enjoyable (quotable dialogue, creatively drawn characters, jokes that built on one another), shining a huge, beaming spotlight on the lexical throat clears being passed off as jokes here.

As Derek and Hansel spend eons bumbling about Rome in pursuit of the former’s estranged son, Kristen Wiig is wildly misspent as an underwritten parody of Donna Versace while Penelope Cruz listlessly inhabits the role of Valentina, an Interpol agent with the hots for Derek.

But the pathetic one-dimensionality of its female characters is the least of the film’s problems. The script is fundamentally unfunny, as if Stiller decided to shoot an outline and add the comedy in post-production, but subsequently couldn’t come up with anything of value. There’s a little substance in the form of social commentary in relation to body shaming, but it’s halfhearted and culminates in a creepy sequence that sees a room full of fashion icons (Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger) cheering a human sacrifice.

Some of the cameos are so strained that they could be passed off as kitsch (see: a dreadful exchange between pop star Katy Perry and “celebrity” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson), blurring the line between pained unfunniness and outright hilarity. (The silence that accompanied this critic’s particular showing was often its funniest element.)

But Ben Stiller is not this crime’s lone perp. Actor and co-writer Justin Theroux spent the last decade shepherding the project along. Paramount Pictures saw a potential franchise and indubitably couldn’t keep the dollar signs from its eyes. And “Zoolander” fans might be the guiltiest party of all, clamoring for Derek’s return as long as they’ve known the character.

The result is a debacle that cast, crew, and audiences alike won’t soon forget – provided moviegoers haven’t been put off by the terrible, no-good trailers that are absolutely indicative of the final product. Newbies should skip it. And fans should skip it with prejudice.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: February 12, 2016
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenwriters: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Kyle Mooney, Justin Theroux, Billy Zane, Kiefer Sutherland, Cyrus Arnold, Fred Armisen, Justin Bieber, Sting
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language)