Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. But comedy sequels are apparently the greatest challenge of all. Oh sure, on paper they’re a safe bet: just do what you did again and you’ll come out with something at least half decent. And indeed, abandoned Blockbuster video stores are littered with these half decent follow-ups. But for some would-be jesters, even this is a tall order. Take Ben Stiller’s Zoolander 2 for example.
Everything about the film points to a box office hit and for good reason. The first Zoolander was the perfect zany high moviegoers needed in 2001 while in the shadow of 9/11. Years later, it still maintains a lightness several degrees thinner than air, plus the most quotes per minute in any comedy this side of Mel Brooks. Seriously, who doesn’t want to partake in an Orange Mocha Frappuccino gasoline fight right this minute?
Yet despite Ben Stiller’s best efforts to deliver a Zoolander 2 that lives up to that first film’s ridiculously good-looking shadow, the end result should never be let anywhere near a mirror. The sequel’s facelift of once beloved jokes is simply too much to take since in the process of smoothing over the familiar punchlines, it has nevertheless distorted everything else. A countenance that was once so welcoming is still there, but “Blue Steel” this ain’t.
There are certainly elements of Zoolander 2 that work, including its very basic premise. After a freak and bemusing accident separates Derek Zoolander (Stiller) from Matilda (Christine Taylor) and his child, Derek spends the next 15 years living in self-pity while in the mountain wilderness of New Jersey. But upon an invitation from hot new designer Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wigg), and her uber-annoying cartel of douchebag hipster flunkies, to model a new look in Rome, Zoolander’s back in the game alongside a “scarred” Hansel (Owen Wilson).
Also while in the Eternal City, Derek learns that singers and pop stars all over the world have been murdered while sporting his famous poses. Interpol’s Fashion Police gumshoe, Valentina (Penelope Cruz), believes there’s a connection, but Derek is too stupid to see it… That is until his estranged son (Cyrus Arnold) and his dreaded foe Mugatu (Will Ferrell) become involved.
Reportedly, Stiller rejected an earlier treatment for this picture years ago that was written by Justin Theroux. If only he had remained so choosy.
Zoolander 2 is definitely funny in spots with a few standout gags (most of which involve Ferrell). And it is quite evident that unlike so many Focker or Night at the Museum follow-ups, Stiller is really jazzed to be here. In fact, everyone is trying their hardest. But after so many years, being able to see such manic effort yield so few results is nothing less than a pure disappointment.
The first act is most especially problematic since it sets the tone of a comedy that relies almost exclusively on callbacks to jokes that were done better a decade and a half ago, or one splashy and random cameo after the next. In Zoolander, seeing Billy Zane just walk by the frame and suddenly get in Derek’s corner during a potential club brawl seemed ingenious in its understated absurdity. Only David Bowie was allowed to take a bow for his fabulous presence. However, almost every celebrity cameo in Zoolander 2 comes with a pause for anticipated applause that will not come—save for the reveal of who Hansel’s father actually is, which I will not give away here.
Compounding the film’s issues is that while the set-up is sound, most of Derek’s gags suffer this time around because either the hipsters are too annoying for even Stiller to find the comedy in, or because the approach Stiller and co-writer Theroux take to Derek and Derek Jr. is less than witty. Owen Wilson fares better with some of the best lines of the film that he still delivers with the perfect amount of spaced out, good stoner cheer. He also has a pretty pitch perfect running joke about becoming a father himself that is one of the film’s few highlights.
Nevertheless, it isn’t really until about the hour mark that Zoolander 2 finds its groove on the runway. Around that time, Ferrell’s Mugatu reenters the picture, the celebrity cameos are weaned to a minimum, and instead of relying on repeating itself, the sequel comes up with a pretty hilarious finale that will likely save the whole thing for some viewers.
Still, Zoolander 2 feels like a missed opportunity. Despite a few good laughs, it spends more time meandering around nostalgia and bouncing from one plot point to the next. Whereas Zoolander circa 2001 was perfectly distilled down to the essence of mindless laughter, this is mainly just mindless. It doesn’t help matters that Wiig’s secondary villain is a complete misfire. At the very least, Penelope Cruz’s talents are well utilized and in exactly how you’d expect in a comedy about fashion and the ridiculously good-looking.
I must confess that going into Zoolander 2, I set a low bar for the film. Not very long ago, Paramount released another belated sequel to a comedy classic from the early 2000s that is quoted more liberally on college campuses than the Bard: Anchorman 2. While that 2013 film was not a patch on the 2004 classic, and barely registers as a memory now, it at least provided 90 minutes of forgettable guffaws and a good time at the multiplex. Surely Stiller, who waited 15 years to do this and had thus far only directed subversively brilliant comedy showcases like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, could clear that hurdle!?
… It doesn’t even come close.