The lack of staying power for Anchorman 2 made me wonder if Zoolander 2 was really worth clamoring for. I can’t think of a single comedy sequel that is superior to the original, and while Anchorman 2 is an alright film (it doesn’t hold up as well on repeat viewings whereas the original just keeps getting better), I didn’t know if there was much more to do with dim-witted male model Derek Zoolander. Director, co-writer, co-producer, and star Ben Stiller disagreed, but his sequel comes off as a disheartening hodgepodge of half-developed ideas mixed with a stew of rewrites and reshoots that never comes together. The movie does have some funny moments, but it struggles to find a story or anything cohesive beyond the broadest, laziest character motivations. While not an outright disaster, Zoolander 2 is a far cry from the original comedy that found its way into people’s hearts and vernacular.
The movie has an electric opening after a chase scene where a mysterious operative guns down Justin Bieber and the pop star sends out a final message—a selfie mimicking Zoolander’s signature look. However, Zoolander went into hiding over a decade ago after his school collapsed, killing his wife (Christine Taylor) and disfiguring Hansel (Owen Wilson) in the process. However, Interpol agent Valentina (Penélope Cruz) is able to recruit Zoolander and Hansel to help her track down the person responsible for the murder of Bieber and other pop stars, and find the connection to fashion maven Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig).
Watching Zoolander 2, it feels like Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg never got a handle on the story they wanted to tell. The Atoz storyline is built up as a big deal in the first half of the movie, and we’re also introduced to the hot new fashion model, All (Benedict Cumberbatch), and a hipster designer played by Kyle Mooney, but along the way, it appears they decided to cut All’s part to a couple scenes and drop in way more of Mooney’s ironic-appreciation overload character. While getting rid of All was probably the right move (it only leads to a bunch of childish transgender jokes that would have felt dated ten years ago), there’s way too much Mooney, and yet his pointless character is allowed to stick around, presumably because test audiences found his shtick enjoyable.
The movie also takes too long to bring Mugatu (Will Ferrell) into the picture, but it’s like Ferrell has forgotten the comic timing of the character. His affectations and pitch are slightly different, and while he has some good jokes, the film can’t seem to figure out how to bring us the Mugatu we appreciated from the first Zoolander while also showing that prison has “changed” him.
Mugatu, like plenty of Zoolander 2, seems to provide a reminder of a superior movie. That’s the burden of plenty of sequels, but Zoolander 2 almost goes out of its way to point out that this is an idea past its prime. It relies far too heavily on cameos (again, another sin of comedy sequels), but it sends Derek and Hansel too low and doesn’t have a propulsive storyline to give the film and the characters some energy. Derek wants to get his son back from child services, Hansel has to come to grips with becoming father, and we’re left wondering if that’s the best the filmmakers could do considering it’s not like this sequel was rushed in front of cameras.
Instead, Stiller decides to mix a spy flick with a prophecy with the kitchen sink and hopes that we’ll be bowled over by watching the character back on screen and flanked by a bunch of famous faces. At some points it works, but my favorite bits are when Zoolander 2 is willing to just be weird and strange like when we’re shown Derek as a centaur but with a cow’s body. It’s a joke that doesn’t rely on a famous person or reminding us of how much we liked the original movie. Sadly, those moments are few and far between. The special spark that made the original Zoolander special and quotable is largely absent, and it makes Zoolander 2 really, really, ridiculously pointless.