The most interesting thing about Zoolander, the 2001 comedy directed by and starring Ben Stiller, is a minor historical footnote that was publicized more than a decade after its release. It turns out that Terrence Malick, the filmmaker behind The Tree of Life and Days of Heaven, is a huge fan. Stiller even recorded a birthday message for Malick as the eponymous male model, which will pique my curiosity for years to come. The birthday message is almost certainly better than Zoolander 2, Stiller’s deeply unfunny sequel. It rehashes all the silly punchlines from the original film, and the new material has a sour, reactionary streak that undoes all the goodwill Stiller has earned.
The prologue is a highlight reel of what has happened to Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and his friends over the years. Cameos from familiar news personalities, including Christiane Amanpour and Soledad O’Brien, explain how Zoolander’s literacy center collapsed on itself. The accident killed his wife, and in the fallout child services separated Derek from his son. Derek now lives a life of seclusion, but Billy Zane convinces him to attend a fashion event in Rome. Upon his arrival, Zoolander reconciles with his model buddy Hansel (Owen Wilson), and discovers that his son Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold) lives in a nearby orphanage. This is no mere coincidence, and the Rome fashion show sets the stage for a bizarre prophecy involving the Bible, the Fountain of Youth, and Derek Jr’s blood.
The appeal and major conceit of Zoolander 2, like the original film, is the stupidity of its main characters. Stiller and his screenwriters take a one dimensional joke – “male models are dumb” – and extract jokes that are surreal and sometimes subtle. Derek’s empty head could bring out extremes in everyone around him, including the sinister Mugatu (Will Ferrell) and fashion industry types who treat their models like slaves. In Zoolander 2, however, Derek reacts to an industry that sees him as an artifact. There is a millennial fashion designer who loves trash in a way that irony no longer applies to him. Benedict Cumberbatch has a cameo as an androgynous model who has little patience for Derek’s adherence to convention. While the Derek is too dim to realize he is obsolete, Stiller and his screenwriters are upset there is little room for him in 2016. Bitterness informs long stretches of Zoolander 2, which replaces the lightness that made the original film a success.
Most of the gags in Zoolander 2 either involve cameos or physical comedy. Stiller amasses some impressive heavyweights from the fashion world, including Vogue’s Anna Wintour, but his slovenly need to announce their names ultimately kills the thrill of their appearance. The physical jokes are the best parts because, well, they’re so reliable. There is a wordless, violent sequence between Mugatu and his underling that reveals more about their relationship than anything spoken. The climax includes gruesome moments, except Stiller films them so the shock is more funny than horrifying. Another inept streak of humor are the sex jokes, which are frequent and uninspired. Hansel has a subplot involving his longtime orgy buddies, and Penelope Cruz appears as an INTERPOL agent whose large breasts ultimately hinder her fashion career. Stiller approaches each crude gag like an adolescent, pointing out differences and laughing at them for their own sake. There is no sense of fun here, or sense that we’re sharing the joke along with the characters.
Ben Stiller’s films usually look more polished than most other comedy/parody films. Tropic Thunder, for example, has the production values of an action film from the 1980s, while The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has looks like a splashy travelogue from National Geographic. Aside from the dearth of laughs, Zoolander 2 also looks terrible. Many sequences take place at night, looking glum without any crisp cinematography, and the special effects do not improve on the original film. Derek Zoolander was somewhere between a box office phenomenon and a cult success. By trotting him out again, Ben Stiller reveals his resentful, angry yearning. It’s a bad look for a character who normally traffics in such fashionable ones.