Directed by Ben Stiller
(12th February 2016 – Red Hour Films, Scott Rudin Productions)
Written by Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Nicholas Stoller & Jon Hamburg
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig & Benedict Cumberbatch
Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.
Mounting a sequel to a niche, but beloved comedy fifteen years after it originally graced our screens was always going to be a risky proposition. As Hollywood continues to put more pressure on synergy (remakes, reboots, re-quels, sequels, prequels etc.) over original ideas, we’re going to see more and more properties dragged kicking and screaming into the “modern” world.
Of course, the marketing campaign for Zoolander 2 already learned the hard way about the current political and social climate after the first trailer received considerable backlash for Benedict Cumberbatch‘s character, a non-gender conforming model called “All”. This is an important time for trans issues, as it’s finally a topic that is being discussed in the open, and so a portrayal that essentially mocks the movement is hardly appropriate at such a crucial time. Naturally, outrage exists on a spectrum and there were certainly people that jumped the gun, but it gave director, writer, star and producer Ben Stiller an uncomfortable jolt in the run-up to the film regardless.
You see, a large part of the film’s comedy is situated around Zoolander and Hansel’s lack of adaptability. It takes mere minutes for the film to tear down the happy ending of the first in suitably amusing fashion, and then isolate our characters in a way that they would remain relatively untouched by the passing of time. Cue 2016 and they haven’t grown or changed as people (hell, in some ways they’ve actually regressed), and suddenly they’re thrust into a world they do not understand and they do not belong in.
Whereas the first film was a surrealist comedy about the modelling industry with James Bond-esque tones, the sequel is about two men that don’t fit in anywhere, least of all the modelling industry. The aforementioned All has that one brief scene – essentially a glorified cameo for Cumberbatch – and the whole sequence is about how wrong Zoolander and Hansel are for not understanding. The young, modern fashion designer stares blankly at them and cannot figure out what their problem is, while the stars struggle to communicate their discomfort. If anything, the film is far harsher to hipsters and fat people, who are mercilessly savaged throughout a large portion of the run-time.
Of course, this is a comedy, so the question on most people’s mind will be this: is it funny? Well, partially. Like all sequels, Zoolander 2 is forced to up the ante considerably, but instead of just leaning on recycled material – of which some long-delayed continuations have been guilty – it has opted for upping the international spy film levels. The film opens with an insanely over the top sequence where Justin Bieber cameos (thankfully, only briefly – he’s a distractingly bad actor) and uses martial arts and parkour to fight a group of anonymous villains, before ultimately succumbing to their onslaught. The camera lingers cathartically as he’s shot, repeatedly pumping his jerking body with bullets, as a big wink to the audience “we know you hate this guy”. While it may feel worryingly satisfying in isolation, it establishes a fascination with celebrity that consistently threatens to overwhelm the entire film.
You see, Zoolander 2 loves cameos; in fact it’s obsessed with them, and hopes that you will be enamoured with the parade of familiar faces. A cameo can sometimes be spun into a funny joke, but having a conveyor belt of famous people tag in and out can prove to be distracting, and it’s not enough to just have them randomly appear; there has to be a comedic purpose. At times it’s like playing whack-a-mole, or “spot the person that isn’t a famous celebrity” when things get particularly crowded. From Bieber, Cumberbatch, and Kanye West, to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Katy Perry, Billy Zane, Kiefer Sutherland, Sting, John Malkovich, MC Hammer and an enormous litany of others, Zoolander 2 spares no expense on roping in famous faces to give the film a boost, but it also wasn’t thinking whether there was a good enough joke to be made of them.
In spite of this, Kiefer Sutherland’s brief appearances are the absolute highlight of the film. He devotes an unbelievable amount of energy to an entirely ridiculous concept and performance, and has the funniest moments of the film.
Outside of cameos, the main additions to the sequel’s cast are Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig, one a heroic agent that works with Zoolander, the other a devious villain. Zoolander 2 transforms considerably when he is approached by Cruz’s fashion police agent. Suddenly they’re trotting all over Europe and various glamourous locales, which makes it feel more like an espionage movie, and thus lessens the pressure for strong comedy. The problem with this is that it never really leads to anything substantial. During the moment, this middle section of the film works and is moderately entertaining, but on reflection it feels entirely superfluous. Ultimately the plot is engineered and resolved due to the villain, and Zoolander and co. feel like they’re along for the ride.
Speaking of villains, Wiig has a lot of fun with her ridiculous role, but she is criminally under-utilised, and frankly, almost completely wasted. No, this film is more interested in Zoolander’s old nemesis Mugatu (Will Ferrell), which makes sense from a fan-pleasing perspective. Once he’s introduced at the half way mark, the momentum kicks up a notch significantly, and Ferrell brings back the crazy villain and his heightened antics with aplomb. Although, for some reason, Ferrell’s voice is noticeably different from when he last played the role, which is an oddity when you consider the intense amount of make-up that is slathered upon by the bucket load to our leads to otherwise eliminate the signs of aging.
Naturally, when you attempt to escalate every element of your film, you end up losing a lot of the finesse and nuance that made the original so successful. Whereas the original was filled with remarkable restraint – its funniest jokes often wryly camouflaged by more obvious crowd pleasers - Zoolander 2 largely dispenses with that in favour of larger set pieces. Calling back to beloved jokes is to be expected, and some offer successful twists that are funny (the driving sequence), whereas others are poorly executed retreads, such as Mugatu throwing his drink at his hapless assistant Todd. In the original, it’s a weird little character moment that comes from left field, and it provides the crazed fashion mogul with a little texture; here it is just an imitation, and a poor one that demonstrates a critical lack of understanding as to what made the interaction so memorable in the first place. It also signifies the inconsistency of quality on display, as this flaccid rehashed gag is quickly redeemed somewhat by one of the funnier jokes of the entire film.
With a comedy, it’s always natural that some of the jokes will land and some won’t, but after awhile Zoolander 2 becomes far more preoccupied with taken the series to bizarrely surrealistic heights. Turing to a story of “chosen ones”, warped biblical mythologies, and ritualistic sacrifices seems like a weird twist for the series, but not as baffling as holding onto Penelope Cruz’s boobs while she rapidly swims across the sea like a dolphin/mermaid (seriously). It all leads to rather predictable conclusion, with one pointless, but sort of surprising twist, that overall just feels rote and unsatisfying. For future reference, if you’re considering making jokes about all the major fashion icons you have cameoing in your movie, but you have to explain who they are first before you land your punchline, then reconsider.
Ultimately, Zoolander 2 is not the total disaster that it could have been. While certainly not as interesting or unique as its predecessor, it still creates a moderately entertaining experience that could potentially reel in new and old fans alike. While it may fail at times to strike a proper balance between its constituent parts, and often at times fall victim to its own absurdist tendencies without delivering adequate payoff, Stiller and his cast are at least trying to make something great and are clearly committed to the project. Considering Stiller’s strong dramatic work of late, one can’t help but feel that Zoolander 2 is beneath him now, both as a filmmaker and an actor.
For those desperate to spend more time with Derek Zoolander and Hansel, Zoolander 2 should tide you over, but the fans that treasured the unique and perfectly measured quirkiness of the original may find the more haphazard experience on offer here lacking. Apparently, you really do need to be something more than just really, really, really good looking.