15 years have passed since Ben Stiller’s clueless male model Derek Zoolander learned that there was more to life than being really, really, really ridiculously good-looking and was brilliantly, absurdly quotable doing it. In a world where Dumb & Dumber To came out in 2014, Zoolander 2 doesn’t really feel like as much of a stretch, but that’s one of the only reasons why it doesn’t feel like a bit of a letdown either.
That’s not to say there’s not tonnes of potential here. The world of fame and fashion has only grown more absurd since 2001 and, in fact, the real world sometimes feels a little closer to the arch vapidity depicted in the original film. Social media has all but taken over the world, the Kardashians are somehow seen to be worth keeping up with and if Instagram and selfie sticks hadn’t already existed at the time that this one got the greenlight, Mugatu would have had to invent them.
But after some unusually mean-spirited undoing of the previous film’s happy ending, we find Derek living in isolation in a remote cabin, waiting on Netflix discs from Billy Zane (in one of many cameos by celebrities playing themselves) and feeling sorry for himself. When he learns that a bunch of pop stars have been murdered while posing in his signature Blue Steel look, he and Hansel (Owen Wilson) team up with Interpol fashion agent Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz) to unmask the killer.
It’s all very silly once it gets going, but that opening movement really stifles the film. Unlike an Austin Powers, an unlikely comedy franchise that was modelled on the flexibility of James Bond and thus could quickly get into standalone adventures in the sequels, it plays by sitcom rules, thus having to get around the fact that the hero didn’t snap back to his default mode at the end of the first film by ruthlessly unpicking it.
Paul Blart – Mall Cop 2 was a particularly gross example of this, but that film got it out of the way quickly and then continued to not be funny – Zoolander 2 starts on a down note that’s as absurd as you’d expect, but it takes a little while longer to reconnect with your funny bone afterwards. This comes partly out of another sequel folly of trying to humanise the lead character via a lengthy reconciliation with his son Derek Jr (Cyrus Arnold), while also dumbing him down over and over again.
In many other ways, it is more obviously modelled on an Austin Powers sequel. Certainly, lots of the jokes hinge upon callbacks and references to the previous film. For instance, Zoolander had cameos by celebrities playing themselves, so Zoolander 2 has even more of the same – but with a couple of notable exceptions, the repetition becomes the joke.
Remember David Bowie in the first film? He materialises to judge an underground walk-off and the event is so awesome, the universe plays a snatch of Let’s Dance and gives us a caption to confirm that, yes, David effing Bowie just showed up. The sequel has a moment that mirrors this with a different star, and also ratchets up a number of cameos beyond even Muppet movie levels, but the surprise value is gone and the fact that these people are here, playing themselves, isn’t funny enough in and of itself to count as a joke.
The film fares better when it puts its cameo players to use as characters. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kristen Wiig are both wasted in Little Britain mode, but they raise a couple of chuckles between them as androgynous valkyries of the fashion world (literally, in the case of the former). Kiefer Sutherland seems to be playing a version of himself that can get pregnant, as part of Hansel’s main running gag. Most disturbingly, in this film and perhaps any film that will be released this year, there’s Fred Armisen as an 11-year-old boy.
Such diversions aside, it’s hard to dodge the fact that this is really underwhelming for at least the first half hour of its running time, except for one incredible visual gag involving another of Derek’s old embarrassing fashion adverts. Stiller and his co-writers Justin Theroux, John Hamburg and Nicholas Stoller are no slouches, but it might be the long gap between films that makes this feel mistimed, rather than lazy. It makes sense to allude to Instagram and the rest, but it leans more heavily on pop culture references that already feel dated (when was the last time you thought about Susan Boyle, before you just read her name?) than the first film did.
But just when you’re ready to write it off, the film pulls out its masterstroke. We’d hesitate to mention the specifics if the trailers hadn’t already revealed it and if you didn’t need a reason to stick with the movie, but it’s the return of Will Ferrell as Jacobim Mugatu that saves Zoolander 2. There isn’t actually an audible click when he arrives, but there might as well have been. The movie has its Dr. Evil back and everything else runs a hell of a lot smoother with that missing piece of the puzzle reinstated.
Ferrell has still never played a character weirder than Mugatu and having spent the last few years playing buttoned-down white collar folks, he seems ravenous to get back into the eccentric outfits and little white goatee of the disgraced fashion designer. Stiller and Wilson seem to up their game too – neither of them are stretched by their characters, but they need the foil that Ferrell gleefully provides. As in the first movie, it’s equal parts scary and hilarious that Mugatu, of all people, has more common sense than anyone else in the room, (“Am I taking crazy pills?!”) and after he arrives, it’s a much funnier movie.
But taken altogether, Zoolander 2 is a very mixed affair. While the appeal of Zoolander has endured for a decade and a half, the long awaited sequel seems content to be a momentarily amusing repeat. Everyone involved has gotten older and wiser, but it’s fitting that the coveted McGuffin of the sequel turns out to be as much about recapturing former glories as the film itself. You might subtract a star from the rating if you’re not interested in seeing Will Ferrell boss the whole thing, but in any case, his vital performance is his funniest in a long while.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.