The original Zoolander is a work of unrecognized comic genius.
That film is the closest anyone has gone to capture the sensibilities of writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Both authors specialize in characters who are so wrapped up in appearing hip and trendy to their peers that they don’t realize how disposable they are themselves. Ellis especially is obsessed with celebrity and how, despite their wealth, beauty, and fame, the people that grace the cover of People are horrifyingly inept at seeing the world that is fascinated with looking at them. Zoolander may not have been as malicious as a character like Patrick Bateman, but he was still able to wreak havoc on the people around him with his narrow world view.
The delivery of the jokes is perfect. There are lines in the film that still make me laugh, particularly Zoolander’s query “Why is he sticking his hand in his pants?” during the famous walk-off scene. The impact Zoolander makes is consistently great throughout its run time.
Its biggest problem was that it seemed dated by the time it reached theaters. Zoolander was released in the shadow of 9/11 – as in, about two weeks after it happened. I learned on IMDB that the first news footage about the attacks interrupted Zoolander’s TV spot and recall seeing the first film in a practically empty theater when I was 14. No one wanted to watch a vicious deconstruction of the New York celebrity scene while New York was trying to rebuild. But somehow the original became more relevant as people found ways to turn themselves into Derek Zoolanders. There are hundreds on YouTube, craving attention and not stopping to ponder whether there is more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking.
Maybe that’s why Ben Stiller wanted to make a sequel 15 years later. I’m speculating because Zoolander 2 isn’t giving me any answers as to why we needed to see another chapter in Zoolander’s life. This is a sequel that doesn’t understand what made the original work so well. It’s a dated, dumb comedy that offers practically no laughs, only miscalculations.
I realized something was terribly wrong during the credits sequence where we learn what happened to Derek Zoolander in the fifteen years since his last movie. First, his Derek Zoolander Institute for Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Want To Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too collapsed the day it opened because the building was made with the same material the model was made out of. Har har. The problem is that we see the institute collapse via a home video someone took and it unmistakably resembles home video footage of 9/11. I know I said 9/11 destroyed the original Zoolander’s theatrical release, but for Stiller to complain about it seems petty. I have a feeling that when we’re examining the impact of that day, “kind of lowering the box office gross of Ben Stiller’s film” is not often discussed.
So that was strike one.
Strike two is when we realize that there are victims of this collapse – namely, Zoolander’s wife Matilda. Matilda was the audience surrogate of the first film. She kept us sane in Zoolander’s crazy, shallow world. What were the filmmakers hoping to accomplish? Having us not feel dirty about the scenes where Zoolander is lusting after Penelope Cruz? What it does is remove Zoolander completely from our world so that we have no lenses to observe Zoolander’s lifestyle. And it’s a mean spirited way to start a comedy.
So, within two minutes the wrong tone has been set and poor narrative choices have been made.
Anyway, Zoolander goes into seclusion, Hansel is maimed by the building collapse and gets his entire orgy pregnant (including Kiefer Sutherland), and Billy Zane continues to be Billy Zane. They’re drawn back together after a series of murders in which the victims strike Zoolander’s poses before they expire. The literal fashion police (lead by Cruz) are called in to investigate. OK. The first film dealt with a dumb conspiracy that revolved around Zoolander. If it leads to the same sort of comedic invention, I’d be on board.
But Zoolander 2 continues to make poor choices by forgetting what made the first film work. It was meant to be a parody of models who are so desperate to be around today’s hottest celebrities. Every single reference that Zoolander 2 makes is dated. The conspiracy – which has something to do with fashion icons looking to find the Fountain of Youth and murder right rock stars who are protecting it- recalls Dan Brown’s novels. Too bad those are about ten years old. Then we have cameos from celebrities like Susan Boyle, Skrillex, Joe Jonas, and MC Hammer. In other words, people who are well past their fifteen minutes of fame.
There is one character in the film that works – All (Benedict Cumberbatch). All is literally a person with no identity except that which is given to…All. Part of the joke is that All’s gender is ambiguous, but All is not mocking transgendered individuals. Rather, All works as a commentary on how increasingly blank models are. But All is barely in the film and is overshadowed by fashion designer Don Moody – an annoying man who lives to love kitsch. He’s supposed to be an indictment of hipsters, but that joke has been made and has been made much better. Kristen Wiig as Alexanya Atoz is even worse and serves as nothing more than a dates Donatella parody.
Zoolander 2 continues to make mistakes as the second act switches focuses to Zoolander trying to rebuild a relationship with his son, Derek Jr. Zoolander lost custody of his son after a home video surfaced showing him trying to cook pasta. (“How did Mom make it soft?” Derek wails to his filth covered son.) Derek Jr has committed the unforgivable sin of becoming a smart, sensitive young man who also happens to be “plus-sized.” Zoolander 2 screws this moment up by having Derek Jr unconvincingly repeat the beats his mom had in the first film. I know I mourned not having an audience surrogate a few paragraphs ago, but Derek Jr. is not an outsider in the way his mother was (he’s an idealized orphan) and can’t repeat anything beyond “I’m really smart and you’re really dumb.” The film ends with Derek Jr becoming a plus sized model, which goes against the character’s arc.
Even returning character Mugatu (Will Ferrell) doesn’t work. He’s been put in “fashion jail” after his crimes in the first film, which somehow didn’t prevent him from orchestrating the whole conspiracy. How? I have no idea, and it somehow doesn’t involve the shadowy cabal of designers from the first film. Ferrell is given nothing to do with the character and what is shown contradicts his role in Zoolander.
I sat there, watching these characters create a dated comedy with no laughs. Then I realized that this could be Ben Stiller pulling the ultimate prank. He was turning his audience into Don Ataris, having us hate everything about these characters while turning our lack of laughs into an obnoxious statement. We had paid money to see something that we knew would not be good. We bought tickets to see how dated it would be. Stiller was turning us into the jerks he was criticizing and then makes us realize how we are not above his characters.
So, is Zoolander 2 a sort of Andy Kaufman comedic subversion, where we’re supposed to laugh not at the film but about its effect on us and how we are the people Stiller is mocking? If so, then Stiller one of film’s greatest geniuses and a master of anti-comedy.
Then I got to the fifth or sixth fat kid joke and realized no, it’s exactly as dumb as I thought.
So in summary, Zoolander is less like the latest spring lineup from Versace and more like that stained shirt you find for 75 percent off at Old Navy. Watch the first film instead if you want to laugh.