How bad must a movie be if it can’t even make me smile by killing Justin Bieber?
“Zoolander 2” thuds onto the screen reeking of desperation. Full of regurgitated punchlines, insipid mugging and dated jokes, it’s a 100-minute parade of cameos occasionally interrupted by a story. Watching the cast of very funny people try and fail to make me laugh made me feel — to paraphrase Will Ferrell’s villain, Mugatu — like I was taking crazy pills.
The sequel to Ben Stiller’s 2001 sorta-hit, the film takes place 15 years after doofus male models Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) stopped an assassination attempt on the Malaysian prime minister. Since then, Derek and Hansel have both gone into hiding. Derek fled following the tragic death of his wife, and Hansel has been living in the desert, struggling with whether or not to commit to the traveling orgy he’s a part of. The two are reunited when mysterious fashion designer Alexanaya Artoz (Kristen Wiig) invites them to Rome to take part in her latest show. Coincidentally, an Interpol agent (Penelope Cruz) is also tracking a series of murders of famous pop stars — including Bieber, who’s machine-gunned down in front of Sting’s house in the clumsy opening scene. Before their deaths, the celebrities have all taken selfies sporting Zoolander’s famous Blue Steel. Derek and Hansel soon find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy that stretches all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Yes, it’s that stupid. No, it’s not funny.
The original “Zoolander” was enjoyable enough, earning some solid laughs from Stiller, Wilson and Ferrell’s willingness to steer into stupidity. Derek was a walking collection of mispronunciations and malapropisms, and it was funny to watch him bounce off Christine Taylor’s smart love interest. Wilson was at his spaciest, Ferrell — still several years away from Ron Burgundy or Buddy the Elf —was wonderfully surreal and unhinged, and the film’s depiction of male modeling as a cover for international assassination was fun. The film didn’t set the box office on fire, making only $45 million (possibly because it was the first major movie released after the 9/11 attacks), but it found an audience on home video and Netflix. It never became a classic on par with “Anchorman,” but it had a bit of a following.
Conceivably, there would be fertile comedic material for a Zoolander sequel in these days of selfies, Instagram and Internet narcissism. But Stiller, who proved with “Tropic Thunder” that he can direct funny, scathing satire, seems defanged. Rather than unleash Hansel and Derek on a world where everyone has a camera and access to their 15 minutes of fame, the film settles for bringing the duo back to the world of male modeling and pointing out how obsolete they are. Unfortunately, the decision to repeat every gag and punchline from the first movie only makes “Zoolander 2” the butt of its own joke. Instead of getting laughs from Derek playing with a smartphone, the film just repeats the gag of Derek having a tiny flip phone. Lines from the first film are repeated nearly verbatim, even if there’s no context for them. And when the film does attempt something new, it settles for mean-spirited jokes about Derek’s overweight son, sophomoric humor involving Cruz’s breasts and endless cameos where the joke is basically, “hey, look! A famous person.” Stiller is completely disengaged; Derek’s gone from being stupid to simply being vacant. And by removing Christine Taylor as the film’s only grounded character, everyone becomes a cartoon, leaving Derek’s idiocy with nothing to push against.
I can’t recall the last time I watched so many funny people flail aimlessly to come up with laughs. Stiller can’t make Derek sympathetic or funny, and Wilson’s shtick played itself out about 10 years ago. Ferrell gets some chuckles but, aside from a clever visual gag with a body suit, doesn’t find anything new. Stiller’s visual style is garish, incoherent and ugly, an assault of grotesque design and poorly timed slapstick. Some of the supporting characters work; “Saturday Night Live’s” Kyle Mooney earned half a chuckle as a hipster fashion designer, but whoever decided to use CGI to change Fred Armisen into an 11-year-old boy should be ashamed that they made something so horrifying. The only person who consistently gets any laughs is Kiefer Sutherland, whose extended cameo as one of Hansel’s spurned orgy members is fairly funny. But if your movie stars Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, the funniest person in the cast shouldn’t be Kiefer Sutherland.
“Zoolander 2” is a reminder that good comedy sequels are incredibly hard to make. When your original film depended on surreal jokes and bizarre gags, repetition is the last thing people want on the next go-round. An interminable, ugly and tediously unfunny mess, it’s a disaster. If there were a cologne for Zoolander to model for this movie, it would be called Flop Sweat.