The biggest problem with Zoolander 2 (and the movie has a lot of them), is that it forgets Derek Zoolander is a dope. Sure, there are plenty of jokes about how stupid the supermodel is—some of them are even good, like when the evil villain has to explain his evil plans several times to Derek, who still can’t quite catch on. But while we’re supposed to have some affection for Zoolander, we’re not supposed to be invested in him: Even in the first film, the action swirls around him as he looks blankly off into the distance. For some reason, though, in Zoolander 2 he is made into a plot-driving man of action. Do you really want a Zoolander movie where we are supposed to follow Derek Zoolander’s character arc, as if something like that matters?
It’s not that Zoolander 2 is overly sincere, it’s that it’s overly lazy. Rather than dream up a new reason to revisit Derek Zoolander after 14 years, the movie simply plops him in a conventional story and expects the inherent wackiness of the characters to do the heavy lifting. Zoolander, who has been living like a “hermit crab” in the “northern winterlands of New Jersey,” returns to our present day, reuniting with Hansel (Owen Wilson) to save his long-lost son from kidnappers who want to sacrifice him to some sort of fashion pagan god that will give them access to the Fountain of Youth. The gang’s all here, including Mugatu (Will Ferrell) and new additions like Interpol (Fashion Division), Chief Valentina (Penelope Cruz), lunatic new fashion maven Alexanya Atoz (an unrecognizable Kristen Wiig), and hipster designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney). Mooney is the only cast member who shows much energy, trying to impress in the way Ferrell did in 2001, when he was not yet a movie star. Everyone else goes through their paces, not quite sure there’s anything new to add to the Zoolander story, but assembled on set nonetheless.
For a supposed whiz-bang, hellzapoppin’ joke-a-minute comedy like this one, the pacing is surprisingly slack and the movie struggles to ever get started. Even in some of the lesser Will Ferrell-Adam McKay joints, you can still get a buzz from the ad-lib energy of the cast maniacally throwing whatever they can at the wall, just to see if it sticks. But Zoolander 2 just doesn’t have that level of inventiveness or inspiration. It’s surprisingly conventional, but not in a reassuring or back-to-basics way; its set ups and jokes are creaky and labored, its characters stock and strait-jacketed. For all the comedic talent on display, there’s never a tightrope-walking sense of danger. This is safe, easy, and down-the-middle. You like these characters? Well, here they are again. There’s little justification for a sequel after 14 years.
If I might play dime store psychiatrist for a moment, I can’t help but think that Stiller, who co-wrote the script and directed the film, just doesn’t have his heart in this one. He’s coming off one of the larger disappointments of his career, his adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, documented in The New Yorker as his big, ambitious shot at making a truly great, epic, comedy masterpiece. It did not work out—the movie failed commercially and artistically—and this feels like a wakeup call, where Stiller swung and missed on his big expensive vanity project and agreed to bring his most popular character out of mothballs to atone for it. But if you’re not feeling it, you can’t fake it, and Stiller—whose success as a performer has often distracted from a distinct comedy sensibility, as evidenced by his early Fox TV show and the riotous and insane Tropic Thunder—can’t muster up much energy here. The film has the structure and inspiration of an obligatory money grab. Stiller clearly (and probably rightly) doesn’t think there’s any reason Derek Zoolander should be resuscitated—it’s not like the movie has anything new to say about the fashion industry—and he doesn’t work particularly hard to convince us, or himself, otherwise. It’s Meet the Zoolanders.
Thus, you have these funny people going through their paces, but not particularly caring one way or another. The sequel also makes the classic sequel mistake of expanding the canvas and making the action BIGGER rather than different; turning up the volume and scope on a joke doesn’t make it funnier, it just makes it louder. In place of the original’s deadpan silliness and wacked-out supporting characters, this one just has an endless series of celebrity cameos, which has the unintended consequence of making it feel like one of those sad, gasping Austin Powers sequels Mike Myers cobbled together, in which simply having Tom Cruise show up for a second was supposed to be enough of a joke on its own. Not even Will Ferrell seems to be enjoying himself playing Mugatu, the most surreal and hilarious aspect of the first film. He, like the rest of the cast, and the writer, director and star himself, looks to be over all this childish Zoolander business. You will be too.