We’ll skip on the makeup and posturing for a second. Zoolander No. 2 is a supercilious, joke-recycling sequel. Ben Stiller’s back, mugging hard as a way of making scaly jokes about mainstream art and fashion, with “absurdism” as a lame front for blunt condescension. If you’re looking for an excuse in the form of “…but it’s dumb comedy,” nice try. You can put lipstick on a lame laugh, and so on.
Get ready for dumb. To Stiller, models are idiots. And hipsters. And people of fashion. And anything else in recent times that may possibly be irksome. That is Zoolander No. 2’s brand.
Zoolander was aggressive, protracted comedy based on an ultra-esoteric VH1 bit that Stiller did in the ‘90s about a dim-bulb hunk with a great jaw and the eyes of a perpetually lost puppy. Stiller’s Derek Zoolander was a thin gig that managed to expand into 80 minutes about a male model becoming a patsy in a geopolitical assassination. The 2001 film was weak, but it had a certain special irregularity, a surreal commitment to its scenesterdom. Stares could kill, and the fashion industry was a tool for the military-industrial complex. To tweak Tim Gunn’s mantra, Stiller made it work, albeit shoddily.
In Zoolander No. 2, Zoolander’s wife Matilda (Stiller’s real-life spouse Christine Taylor) perished in a tragic 9/11-style accident when the “School for Kids Who Can’t Read Good” fell into a river in October 2001, the opposite of tact. Derek’s son was taken away from him over negligent parenting; he fails even at feeding a child and making the pasta “not-soft” (boiling spaghetti). Derek’s in a self-imposed seclusion, still dumb, but is drawn out of isolation, along with his old nemesis/buddy Hansel (Owen Wilson, forever amiable, even when the material is weak), and the two are caught up in a scheme perpetrated by a rhinoplasty fashionista, Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig). No. 2 offers a facsimile of the first film’s script, with details whited out and renamed and a few new characters added to avoid total plagarism.
Stiller’s big failure is simple: he tries to recycle every last meme from the first film. Blue Steel. “Relax.” Tiny flip phones. Misused words (“KKK” instead of “A.K.A” gets a chuckle, but that’s about it). Any glimmers of curious new creations or gags, like Wiig’s makeup-heavy Atoz or Fred Armisen as a digitally achieved 11-year-old boy, are quickly forgotten or thrown out for more screen time to relish in Will Ferrell’s Mugatu or the return of Billy Zane. Stiller then over-dresses it with a parade of cameos. Fashion-wise, it’s like watching someone put a million buttons on a once-reliable, semi-familiar outfit. Why a sequel now? Fifteen years must be the new 20 in the fashion cycle for nostalgia.
The brand-name appearances dominate. There are a few dozen cameos where people of distinction show up and merely shout their names. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to see Neil deGrasse-Tyson play an actual oddball character, a garish model or Zoolander’s science teacher, rather than just standing him up and asking him to shout his name? Susan Boyle gives the middle finger to paparazzi, but the gag crosses wires with another about Derek’s popularity, so Boyle’s finger is short-lived and without any point. And Justin “drunken drag racer” Bieber gets shot to bits, and the joke is that a controversial punk kid got what was coming to him. It’s in keeping with Stiller’s cynicism and crudity as a director. He’s always been an actor willing to get uncomfortable onscreen, and it’s made him an endearing, insecure everyman. Behind the lens, Stiller vents. His direction on Zoolander No. 2 is best described as “joyless” and “obligatory.”
The Cable Guy and Reality Bites were Gen X rants about alienation, but Stiller’s bitterness started to emerge with Tropic Thunder. That great concept had an undercurrent of hatred for stardom and studio alike, almost suggesting that filmmaking isn’t of worth. Stiller’s Walter Mitty took James Thurber’s fanciful story and turned it into a sort of “no one gets me” diary entry. Now in his fiftiess, Stiller’s Zoolander No. 2 finds him barely veiling his loathing for all things young and new and trendy. His film rags on the indecisive yet passionate Millennial mindset that seems to be cashing in on things he thought were once cool in the ‘90s. Zoolander is readily tripped up by a pansexual model named “All.” And, in a wild act of “you are wrong, not me,” Will Ferrell literally yells at the fashion community, to their in-cameo faces. We’re talking Tommy Hilfiger, Anna Wintour, the “Wangs.” They all get lectured by Mugatu on their shallowness and idiocy. It’s amazing they even participated in this, so glib is the joke. Most of them are.
Zoolander No. 2 invokes that old Simpsons headline: “old man yells at modern culture.”