Zoolander 2 is a very silly movie. There were several moments during the screening where I had to fight down feelings of embarrassment over my eager participation in watching something so dumb. A joke would flop entirely, like when a group of orgy-goers confronts male supermodel Hansel (Owen Wilson) for cheating on their orgy with a different orgy, and I’d think: “This is what I’m watching right now, as a fully grown adult in the middle of Oscar season?” This is why no one ever invites me to their fancy dinner parties; because I watch Zoolander 2 instead of The Revenant.
Director: Ben Stiller
Producers: Stuart Cornfeld, Scott Rudin, Ben Stiller, Clayton Townsend
Writers: Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg, Drake Sather
Cinematographer: Daniel Mindel
Editor: Greg Hayden
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Cast: Olivia Munn, Kristin Wiig, Benedict Cumberbatch, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson
US Theatrical Release: February 12, 2016
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
But just when things seemed bleakest for Zoolander 2, something very funny would come barreling out from underneath its muddled plot and forced catchphrases, and I’d find myself laughing out loud. Kristen Wiig, in her role as fashion designer mogul Alexanya Atoz and using a wonderfully dumb accent, was often the source. She asks us via a skincare commercial: “Have you ever seen a teenager walking by with the most perfect skin? Have you ever wanted to kill that teenager and take her skin? Youth Milk bottles that feeling,” and the silliness again feels acceptable, even fun.
It’s not a cultured movie. It’s not going to win points at a fancy dinner party conversation. But if you enjoyed the first Zoolander (and if you still enjoy it a full fifteen years after the original’s release), it might be worth seeing the sequel. Zoolander 2 is neither as good as I hoped nor as bad as I feared. It’s inconsistent, and its politics are kind of a mess, and if a different viewer told me that they’d hated it I’d understand; but while there are many misses, enough jokes land to make the film worthwhile.
In the movie’s telling, the past fifteen years have not been kind to aging supermodel Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller). His "Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good" slid into the ocean only two days after its opening due to shoddy construction, killing his wife and disfiguring the perfect face of his best friend Hansel. After years of living as a hermit in the snowy tundra of “extreme northern New Jersey,” Zoolander is convinced to take a modeling gig in Rome in an effort to have his son returned to him. He and Hansel become embroiled in a mystery involving the murders of the world’s most beautiful people. Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell (reprising his role as Mugatu, the evil inventor of the piano key necktie) are the bad guys. Penelope Cruz plays Valentina Valencia, an Interpol agent, former swimsuit model, and Zoolander’s love interest. Shenanigans abound.
All the attempts to skewer contemporary youth culture—the differences between 2016 and Zoolander’s former heyday of 2001—largely fail, aiming for parody but sounding more like whining. One of the most wasted of the celebrity cameos must be Fred Armisen’s, whose best sketches in Portlandia have become shorthand for the hypocrisies of today’s “hipster culture.” In Zoolander 2, Armisen’s head is creepily CGI’d onto a child’s body. He makes some awful jokes about how phones are big again and how people try to recycle nearly everything, and he makes sure to use the phrase “farm to table”, as if that alone is enough to skewer everything that’s happened in the last decade and a half. Then he has to leave the movie; everyone has to make room for the next celebrities to roll through.
And Zoolander 2’s attempts to take on “contemporary issues” seemed equally troubled. Benedict Cumberbatch comes in for an early cameo as an androgynous transgendered supermodel named All, replacing Zoolander’s and Hansel’s former status as “So hot right now.” The cameo seems well-intentioned—they poke fun at Zoolander’s obvious discomfort with All’s gender disconformity—but the only thing we see All doing is attacking our heroes with a whip during a fashion show designed to humiliate them while Hansel questions his genitalia. Then, like Armisen, All is never seen again. It’s hard not to view All as portrayed as anything but a villain, and harder still to see this as progress for Trans acceptance.
There are also the fat jokes. Zoolander’s child, Derek Jr., is taken away at a young age due to Zoolander’s gross incompetence as a father (he’s shown throwing pasta around a kitchen and yelling, “How did your mother used to make it soft!?”). The boy is eventually found slightly overweight at an orphanage. The jokes start funny—Derek and Hansel have a ridiculous pseudo-philosophical conversation over whether being fat makes the boy an inherently bad person (“It certainly doesn’t make him a good person,” Hansel offers,) and the whole thing feels genuinely satirical for a moment, the way a culture defined by aesthetics must necessarily reject the non-beautiful as unfit, inferior. But the movie doesn’t build off of this or reject the notion. Rather the opposite: as the movie goes on and the joke wears thinner, Zoolander 2 seems to start working on the assumption that fat is worse, and Derek Jr.’s “fatness” is revealed to be part of an evil plot by Derek’s enemies to destroy him and his loved ones (as opposed to Derek Jr. just being a young kid going through an awkward phase of puberty). These are short moments in a hyperactive, ten jokes a minute comedy, but jokes about sensitive issues that don’t land, rather than shining a spotlight on cultural shortcomings towards these issues, just tend to reinforce those shortcomings.
Where the movie works is where it focuses on the silly. I found myself giggling whenever Zoolander 2 took what worked in the original Zoolander and pushed it yet further. Derek’s commercial in the original as a merman selling moisturizer was wonderful; Derek’s new moisturizer commercial, where he’s a sexy half-cow centaur getting orgasmically milked to provide the essential beauty ingredient, struck me as even funnier. Penelope Cruz fits right in with Ferrell, Wilson, and Wiig in setting the ridiculous scene. Her tragic background story—how her “full, perfect, all-natural breasts” kept her from ever transitioning from swimsuit model to high fashion runways—is probably the best character development in the whole movie.
The celebrity cameos are mostly misses, especially those involving real-life fashion icons clambering to prove that they’re in on the joke; unlike the original, this sequel is extremely friendly with the world it’s supposedly lampooning. One of the final scenes features the world’s top designers and fashion icons all together in the same room, hoping to drink the blood of a hot person and gain eternal youth. It’s a funny setup, and Ferrell manages a few great mocking lines—“Check out the new spring collection from Hilfiger, brought to you by white privilege,” felt almost too real—but mostly the scene just seems a device for allowing these high-fashion people into the movie. We watch Anna Wintour garble her lines and Valentino as he looks like the world’s tannest mummy. It’s a sad inversion of Rousseau’s famous pronouncement, “Eat the rich;” instead, the high-couture rich are gathered to eat the beautiful poor. We’re supposed to feel warmly towards them because they’re famous and are “being good sports” by poking the gentlest fun at themselves. Bernie Sanders would likely take offense at such one-percenter elbow rubbing.
If you weren’t planning on seeing Zoolander 2, you definitely shouldn’t. If you think you’ve matured too much to enjoy it, you’re almost definitely right. But if the original still strikes you as hilarious, it might be worth checking out. Fifteen years later, the trials and tribulations of the really really ridiculously good-looking can still be fun to watch.