Belated sequels can be tricky things. While Zoolander wasn’t Ben Stiller’s star-maker, it’s safe to say it’s one of his most beloved incarnations. As a film it’s far from perfect, but comedy is a tough gig, especially comedy features, which fail as often as not. It’s an incredibly tough balancing act to get right, and even then you have to hope to catch the public zeitgeist. That’s not always an immediate thing. The Big Lebowski, for example, was initially dismissed as a throwaway hangover following the success of Fargo. Anchorman is another word of mouth example. Perhaps improbably Zoolander has acquired similar status, whether it’s actually worth it or not. But fifteen years is a long time, and this sequel’s rush-release a week ahead of schedule doesn’t bode well.
Stiller directs again, and the results are pained. For nearly an hour the film is glaringly, worryingly short on laughs. Hell, more than that, it’s just plain bad. Alarm bells start ringing from the get-go, as a Rome chase sequence reveals Justin Beiber, who is gunned down only moments later. It’s unfortunate for the filmmakers, perhaps, that Beiber has had something of a career u-turn in the past few months. But even so, the sequence is messy and pinpointing the joke is, like a lot of what follows, almost totally futile.
Overtly aware of the decade-and-a-half that’s passed, we’re then treated to a lot of horrendously packaged exposition. The kind even Southland Tales would be ashamed of. Having laboriously brought us up to speed, Zoolander 2 takes on the tentative appearance of an espionage spoof, albeit one that raises the question; is something a spoof if it’s not even funny?
Derek Zoolander (Stiller) is living in isolation following the death of his wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) and the subsequent loss of his son. Hansel (Owen Wilson) is also off the grid, having sustained a scar on his face for which he holds Derek to blame. Billy Zane ensnares them in a lazily sketched mystery, drawing them both to Rome, where Penelope Cruz’s Valentia joins the mix as an Interpol agent (from the fashion division, obviously).
Cue a mire of placeholder scenes more interested in catching the audience up and using the first flick as a crutch than actually developing anything of merit whatsoever. For a while, too long, Zoolander 2 seems content to observe how odd or silly the modern world is from the gaze of two has-beens, yet feels woefully out of step with the times it mocks, as though the film’s creators aren’t even sure what’s fashionable. Like an unfathomably inept riff on Austin Powers.
Things get considerably worse when Derek is reunited with his son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold); a slew of fat jokes strongly suggest the movie has found the bottom of that barrel it’s been scraping. In all this drudgery only the cameos raise a faint smile (Benedict Cumberbatch is deliciously odd, though the mockery of his character is again dismally behind the times, better still is Keifer Sutherland who takes a game shot at stealing the entire film). But when cameos are your lifeline, you’re in pretty serious trouble.
But then… Then Will Ferrell turns up, reprising his role as villainous Mugatu, now held in a Bondian fortress following his botched attempt to assassinate the Malaysian prime minister in film one. With Stiller and Wilson sporting fake boners at Cruz’s expense (somehow she makes it out of this with her dignity more or less in tact), I was ready to throw in the towel, but Ferrell marks a welcome gear-shift in Zoolander 2 as everything just goes batshit crazy.
How crazy? Remember the “I’m bliiiiiind!” section of Anchorman 2 with the pet shark? Well if you weren’t a fan of that level of insanity, you’re going to struggle, as everything gets very surreal from here on out. Zoolander 2 goes from plodding to flat-out crazy in the space of about five minutes, upping the entertainment factor considerably. The exact levels of daftness I’m reticent to comment on, as what follows amounts to a commendable attempt to rescue a sinking ship. It’s not that it becomes laugh-out-loud funny (I’m not sure I did so once), more than the off-the-wall looniness creates a kind of pleasant delirium. This is what the inside of Derek’s brain must be like.
And so, against the odds, it’s almost a salvage job. Yet Stiller seems to have unlearned what filmmaking skills he had. Zoolander 2 is uncomfortable to look at it’s so ugly. Almost half the film seems to be made up of close-ups. The whole thing is a confused mess, penned by committee with, of all people, The Leftovers‘ Justin Theroux taking lead writing credit (he wrote Iron Man 2, so there’s that – set expectations accordingly).
The lunacy of the second half buoys the film up just enough to get the audience through, but in the aftermath there’s little to look back fondly on save for the carnival of bizarre situations instigated by Ferrell’s character (including a prison cell for Derek Jr. that would give Willy Wonka nightmares).
I wondered whether maybe, just maybe, this was all a clever send-up of the Bond/Mission: Impossible franchises and their ilk. A comment on their inherent stupidity and adolescent wish-fulfillment. But that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either. Like Zoolander himself, Stiller’s film is simply an empty vessel, one that ultimately mocks how fucking pointless it all is.
Eleventh hour self-deprecation is a flimsy way to end a routine, but the all-out gusto of it in this instance verges on commendable. Briefly you’re reminded why you loved Achorman and Zoolander in the first place. Sometimes it’s enough for something to simply be profoundly silly. Zoolander 2 takes too damned long to remember that, and it’s misses are more memorable than it’s hits. A third shot now seems quite blissfully unlikely.