Released just two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks — which prompted Roger Ebert, in a one-star review, to offer it as a reason why Americans are hated in some parts of the world (he later apologized) — Ben Stiller's Zoolander found a country in no mood to laugh at its whimsical send-up of fashion-world excess. But the younger generation might be surprised to learn it wasn't a hit, given how thoroughly its catchphrases, looks, "walk-offs" and accessories (Orange Mocha Frappuccino, anyone?) have infiltrated our meme-friendly culture. Like Anchorman 2 a little over a year ago, Zoolander 2 cashes in on a phenomenon that was slow to develop, reuniting stars and a creative team that have been scattered to the winds for over a decade. In both cases, bottling that old magic proves frustratingly elusive.
At least Anchorman 2 had a strong concept—the dawn of 24/7 cable news—around which to work its improvised chicanery. Based on the evidence, Zoolander 2 seems like the result of a 15-year game of "exquisite corpse," the surrealist exercise where different writers add to a story independent of each other, strand by strand, without full knowledge of previous contributions. Though the first film wasn't exactly a model of streamlined plotting, with its murky assassination scheme around Malaysian child labor laws, it looks like Spot Goes to the Farm compared to the sequel's ornate mythology involving underground fashion Illuminati, a "Chosen One" figure, and the search for the Fountain of Youth. Credited to four different screenwriters — Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg — the film is a gaudier indulgence than anything Mugatu, its poodle-haired evil mastermind, could dream up.
Zoolander 2 opens with a dizzying recap of all that's happened to "the really, really ridiculously good-looking" male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and his runway rival-turned-friend Hansel (Owen Wilson). Since the shoddily constructed Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good collapsed into a river, killing his girlfriend (Christine Taylor) and scarring Hansel's pristine face, Derek has become a recluse in the snow-capped wilds of northern New Jersey, while Hansel has retired to the dunes of Malibu with a half-dozen orgy-mates. Derek has also lost his son to Child Protective Services, due to his inability to soften hard spaghetti, among other parenting failures. Derek and Hansel are called back into action after a series of celebrities, like Justin Bieber, have been gunned down, each mimicking one of Derek's signature looks as a death mask.
Ten minutes in, and this is already too much for even the narrator of Jane the Virgin to recount gracefully. But there's much more: Derek and Hansel are whisked off to Rome, where they team up with Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz), an Interpol operative, and poke around at a fashion empire run by Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig), whose face alone is a haute couture experiment. The cut-to-the-chase version of the plot involves the escape of Mugatu (Will Ferrell) from a prison compound and the ruthless search for a "Chosen One" type who holds the key to eternal youth.
To put it as generously as possible, the Zoolander movies view the fashion world like an exclusive, sinister sect that few understand and even fewer can access. Neither of them could be called satires — they're too full of random silliness for that — but the first film was tethered enough to the industry that it got off some good jokes, like an expensive fashion line inspired by the homeless (Derelicte!) or the imperceptible variations on the same pouty stare. Zoolander 2, by contrast, feels like a fruitless spitballing session committed to film, with gags as hastily tossed off as the plot is absurdly byzantine.
The decision to frame Zoolander 2 like a grotesque, art-damaged James Bond thriller reflects how much Stiller has changed, too, in the 15 years since the first film came out. Though Stiller's propensity for conceptual goofs has been a staple of his comedy since his sketch days in the late '80s and early '90s, the scale of his films has ballooned as his star has risen. That may be fine for a war-movie spoof like 2008's Tropic Thunder, but the added bloat does nothing for a weightless riff on fashionistas. With its nonstop parade of big-name cameos, the experience of watching Zoolander 2 is like being the plus-one at a Hollywood party where the guests are all blasted on synthetics. It's loud, garish and distracted, and doesn't care much about showing you a good time.
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