The best gag in the original Zoolander may well have revolved around a gaggle of male models being immolated in a “freak gasoline fight accident,” so it’s probably not surprising that the funniest moment of Zoolander 2 involves a likewise unexpected and incredibly violent automobile wreck. A spectacular bit of comic violence, it stands as an unfortunate outlier in an otherwise tired sequel. Almost every comic garnish in Zoolander 2 feels plucked from the clearance rack or rejected from a more relevant film.
It’s difficult to tell who, if anyone, among the cast was really pushing for this Zoolander sequel to get made 15 years later. As the title character, Ben Stiller is the most obvious answer, but of the principals he seems the least interested in the film’s outcome. Zoolander’s one-note characterization is meant to be expanded here by the addition of his lost son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), but their interactions fail to tell us a single thing beyond “Derek is not smart,” something we’re made quite aware of far before Derek Jr. even comes into the picture. It takes a literal knife in the face for Stiller to really come alive, and you wonder if he’s talking about himself and not Derek when he claims he’s “lost the fire in his face.”
Was it Owen Wilson pressing to get this thing made, hunting for a payoff more substantial than the checks one can garner appearing in cameo roles in Wes Anderson movies he didn’t help write? That could be—it would certainly explain why his character, Hansel, has so much more screen-time in this film, as well as two entirely separate subplots to follow. Theoretically they also could have been simply trying to pad out the film, in which case said subplots are a remarkable success.
It certainly wasn’t Will Ferrell pushing to get the film made. I feel confident of that. His presence as the villain Mugatu was heavily used to sell the sequel—one might argue that he was made out to be the main attraction—but fans of Ferrell will no doubt be disappointed to find out that he doesn’t even enter the film until after the one-hour mark. I ask you: What’s the point of revealing a “secret” villain when everyone in the theater already knows it’s a beloved character? Why not just get into it earlier in the script and give the audience what it so obviously wants?
That said, Ferrell is unsurprisingly the best thing in the film, all manic energy and with a newfound homicidal streak as a result of being sent to fashion prison for the last decade. His evil plot centers around Zoolander and Derek Jr. in an attempt to acquire a mystical source of everlasting beauty and youth, but it’s simply set-dressing and an excuse to deliver such jokes as “Derek misunderstands modern language” and “Derek wears clothing that is now out of date.” Similarly wasted is Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous supermodel character “All,” who is fascinating and hard to tear one’s eyes away from, but has about a minute of screen time.
The film’s actual goal seems to serve as a vehicle to cram in as many celebrity cameos as possible. Some are handled well (Neil Degrasse Tyson), and others are beyond pointless (Willie Nelson). Coincidentally, were any of you aware that Willie Nelson smoked mari-juana? It turns out he does. I’m as shocked as you are.
In the same boat is Christine Taylor, who played love interest Matilda in Zoolander before being killed off between films so she could be replaced with a more acceptably attractive Penelope Cruz. She appears as an exceedingly creepy digital construction in a few scenes, and it’s hard to tell if she was actually involved in any step of production or just allowed her CGI likeness to be composited from the void like the unwilling ghost of Audrey Hepburn being summoned to sell chocolate in TV commercials. If I see a headline in the near future that she’s suing the filmmakers of Zoolander 2, I will not be surprised.
Zoolander 2 isn’t quite a bottom barrel Hollywood comedy, but it’s not far off from it, either. It fails to justify any reason for existing, has nothing funny to say about the current state of the fashion industry and bait-and-switches its audience by implying more Will Ferrell than it ever delivers. The only audience members who walk out nodding in approval will be the ones willing to accept “because no one said no” as an adequate rationale for making a sequel 15 years later.
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Kristin Wiig, Cyrus Arnold, Penelope Cruz
Release Date: February 12, 2016
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.