2016 is the perfect time to make a sequel to the 2001 cult-ish classic, Zoolander. The vapid, narcissistic, pea-brained male models that populated that movie have now taken over the earth in the real world, in the form of the “selfie generation,” a bunch of real-life Derek Zoolanders, Mugatus and Hansels running around, staring at themselves like idiots in their little, digital mirrors as they dream of YouTube stardom and Kardashian-level success. I’m a big, fat, thirtysomething, generationally supplanted crank (make me young and beautiful again!) and I would love nothing more than to watch Ben Stiller and his middle-aged cohorts rip this new wave of self-obsessed monsters to shreds (too harsh?) via a new go-round with Mr. Magnum himself.
Zoolander 2 tries to do that and, and fails at all of it. Hard. Like, heartbreakingly hard. The movie opens with Justin Bieber being brutally shot to death and then taking a selfie before he peaces out. That and a selfie-stick car crash are really the only jokes we get about selfie culture, and they feel in bad taste, almost too real to laugh at (people applauded at the sight of Bieber getting shot to death in my theater, which I found to be more than a little sick). Zoolander is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, its male-model characters gifting us with the some of the most glorious displays of sheer stupidity put to screen. There was orange-mocha-frappuccino; the Mer-Man commercial; the iconic “Hansel. He’s so hot right now. Hansel.” That movie was a non-stop shit show of giant laughs that I enjoy to this day, so the fact that its sequel is so unfunny and off-base is a really tough pill to swallow.
The new story picks up with Derek (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) estranged, both from each other and the outside world. Derek’s living as a “hermit crab” in a snowy cabin somewhere in “extreme northern New Jersey;” Hansel’s living in a desert hut, in a serious relationship with an orgy of lovers (which includes Keifer Sutherland, playing a straight-faced version of himself). They were driven apart by a freak accident at the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too that killed Derek’s wife and mother of his child, Matilda (Christine Taylor, who makes a couple of brief cameos) and scarred Hansel’s face irreparably. As a single parent, Derek fails again, losing his son, Derek Jr., to child services when he “can’t remember how mom made the spaghetti soft,” depriving his son of nourishment completely, apparently.
Derek and Hansel make up and reunite when they’re beckoned by the world’s latest, greatest designer, Don Atari (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, whose interpretation of passive-aggressive hipster youths is the movie’s highlight) to walk the runway in his ultra-hip garb. The joke’s on them when they’re shoved onto the runway in cheap shirts with the words “OLD” and “LAME” printed on them and they’re ridiculed by their glitzy, fresh-faced onlookers. The world’s passed them by (sob). There’s a larger, more pressing issue, however: There’s been a string of celebrity murders being investigated by the Fashion Police, led by Valentina (Penelope Cruz), who believes Derek has the key to finding the people responsible. Derek agrees, as long as she helps him reunite with his lost son.
The plot’s as uninteresting and flat as it sounds, a trashy send-up of the international spy thriller that chose to spoof that genre seemingly arbitrarily. But all that could be quickly forgiven with some good, solid comedy. Alas, Zoolander 2 isn’t funny, not one bit. The botch is in the approach: Stiller, who directed and co-wrote with Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg, makes that godawful mistake most bad sequels make, attempting to emulate and bottle the magic of the first movie. This never works, and the fact that it’s now 15 years since Zoolander was released only makes things worse: Comedy has evolved many times over since 2001, and the same tricks don’t work anymore. A character being woefully uneducated and small-brained, for example, has been taken to new levels by, say, a show like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (Charlie Kelly is the new king of dumb-funny). For this second installment to really work, it would have needed to reach new levels of stupid, in a sense. Instead, it reaches new depths of disappointing, leaning on nostalgia and old, worn-out tricks. Watching Derek go on a joy ride “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was funny the first time, but not so much in 2016.
There’s a freaking ass-load of celebrity cameos in this thing, and not one of them is worth the dough it cost to get them on-screen. Sting pops up. Arianna Grande’s in there. Katy Perry. Benedict Cumberbatch. Billy Zane returns. Will Ferrell‘s back as walking bitch-fest Mugatu, and he’s even joined by Kristen Wiig, playing his vaguely European partner in crime, but even they seem off their game. None of these or the myriad other appearances are amusing and, in fact, they’re a bit uncomfortable to watch. Neil Degrasse Tyson shows up to say, directly at the camera, “I’m Neil Degrasse Tyson…BITCH!” Ooh! A respected educator and astrophysicist cursed! The moment’s clearly designed to make audiences explode in applause; instead, it only elicits groans and eye-rolls. We’re familiar with these cheap parlor tricks and we’re ready for something new, and all Stiller gives us is a regurgitated mess.
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