ZOOLANDER 2

It can be tempting to react to the never-ending torrent of remakes, reboots, sequels, and spinoffs with a knee-jerk groan. Truthfully, though, that’s not always fair. Creed was a spinoff-reboot-sequel combo that restored the long-running Rocky series to its former glory. Ditto The Force Awakens for Star Wars. On the TV side, Ash vs. Evil Dead and Fargo have both managed to recapture the spirit of their respective originals, while also bringing something new to the table.

But if those titles are evidence that Hollywood’s obsession with existing IP can yield excellent results, Zoolander 2 represents the worst-case scenario. Not because Zoolander 2 is the worst movie ever made — it isn’t — but because it’s what we fear every time one of these projects gets announced: a joyless cash-grab more interested in rehashing old ideas than building on them. 

To be sure, it’s not all terrible. Zoolander 2 begins promisingly enough, with a nighttime chase sequence that looks slicker and more expensive than anything we got in the first film. The action ends with Justin Bieber getting absolutely riddled with bullets, yet somehow mustering up enough energy before his death to pose for a selfie and select the most flattering Instagram filter. It’s funny because it’s familiar — who among us hasn’t wasted way too much time futzing with those damn filters? — and for a moment there it looks like Zoolander may have actually managed to update itself for 2016.

The film then launches into a montage that bring us up to speed with male models Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson). Long story short: just days after the events of Zoolander in 2001, the Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good collapsed. The fallout resulted in Derek’s self-imposed exile as a “hermit crab” after losing his wife and custody of his son, and the end of Hansel’s modeling career thanks to a disfiguring scar. But in the present day, both find a potential road back to success and happiness when they’re summoned to Rome by Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) for a fashion show.

ZOOLANDER No. 2

There are a few genuine bright spots scattered throughout Zoolander 2. Not coincidentally, they tend to come from the elements of the sequel least connected to the original. Wiig’s Alexanya is a beauty guru who glides — literally glides — from place to place, and boasts an amazing accent that’d put Katinka Ingabogovinanana’s to shame. (Or as Alexanya would pronounce it, an “amouazing” joke.) Another highlight is Kiefer Sutherland playing himself as, essentially, Hansel’s love interest. The former 24 star is delightfully game, and his commitment does a lot to elevate an otherwise uninspired subplot.

But far too much of the film feels a laundry list of references to the original. The tiny phone comes back. So does Mugatu’s dog, and his aversion to lattes, and Derek and Hansel’s sweet walk-off moves. There’s an orgy montage, and a rock star cameo, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” and a conversation between Derek and his own reflection that ends with Derek musing, “I guess I have a lot to ponder.” It’s all there, but “there” is all they are. Zoolander 2 doesn’t build on them, or subvert them, or even really replicate them. It’s content to just remind you that all those jokes existed.

And not all of Zoolander 2‘s new ideas work so well. The most obnoxious character in the movie is Don Atari (Kyle Mooney, trying his hardest), an enfant terrible designer who only likes things ironically. He shows off a tattoo he got to commemorate the death of a loved one; it’s of Colonel Sanders as a Jedi. He hates it, which means “it’s the best!” The gag might have been relevant a decade ago, when the New York Times Style section was only just getting around to discovering hipsters and Millennials. In 2016, it feels like a dad joke past its expiration date.

ZOOLANDER NO. 2

The first Zoolander was more concerned with laughing at Derek’s stupidity than it was in savaging the fashion industry as a whole. But when it did turn its attention to the ridiculous business of fashion, it landed some solid jabs. Mugatu’s Derelicte campaign was a perfect send-up of a certain kind of high-fashion tone-deafness — so perfect, in fact, that it’s regularly invoked in descriptions of very real collections by the likes of Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Kanye West. And let’s not forget the entire plot hinged on the exploitation of child labor, still a dirty little secret within the fashion industry.

By the time Stiller, who directed and co-wrote both films, got around to making Zoolander 2, the character had been wholly embraced by the very industry it was mocking. Stiller and Wilson walked the Valentino runway, and have been wearing contractually obligated Valentino suits throughout the Zoolander 2 press tour. Stiller, with co-star Penelope Cruz, graced the cover of Vogue. And Stiller was able to convince a slew of fashion-biz celebs (including, naturally, Valentino and Anna Wintour) to cameo in the movie. Maybe that’s why Zoolander 2 feels so toothless, even in comparison to the goofy original.

You can practically see these industry insiders patting themselves on the back for being in on the joke — and maybe they are, but in Zoolander 2 there’s not much of a joke to be in on. One scene features an extra dressed as the spitting image of Terry Richardson, a photographer who’s attracted loud controversy for both his distinctive visual style and his predatory personal behavior. In other words, exactly the kind of celebrity that’s just begging to be skewered. Instead, he just stands there, and isn’t even mentioned in the dialogue. That’s Zoolander 2 in a nutshell: a half-assed reference without a joke to back it up.

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