Director: Ben Stiller/Writer: John Hamburg, Ben Stiller, Nick Stoller, Justin Theroux/ Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Kyle Mooney/ Rated: PG-13/ 102 min.
One of the problems, really the main problem, of comedy sequels is the penchant for repeating the gags that worked well the first time around. Ben Stiller’s late-arriving sequel to his immortal 2001 Zoolander thankfully manages to avoid this pitfall, but unfortunately lacks satisfactory jokes to replace the ones that haven’t been repeated. Stiller, his co-writers and co-stars manage to land about 4 of every 10 jokes over the course of Zoolander No. 2’s pleasantly brief 102 minutes. The ones that do land don’t earn much more than a chuckle or perhaps an appreciative half-smile.
Zoolander No. 2 finds its titular hero in hermitage following the death of his wife, Matilda (Christine Taylor), and the removal of his son at the hands of Child Protective Services. A message from a mysterious design maven arrives via one of the film’s several hit-or-miss celebrity cameos (in all fairness, more hits than misses) demanding his return to the world of fashion. Derek Zoolander soon finds himself reunited with his old friend/rival Hansel (Owen Wilson) and teamed up with an intrepid agent of the “fashion division” of INTERPOL (Penélope Cruz) in an investigation of a Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracy involving the murders of several photogenic pop stars. Were Zoolander No. 2 an actual conspiracy thriller, rather than a parody thereof, it could be commended for its insistence upon pushing the plot forward with great economy; alas, the comedy is given very little room to breathe and there is no sense of playfulness in the proceedings as there was in the first Zoolander.
A great deal more time could have been dedicated to Derek and Hansel’s mutual adjustment to the changed worlds of fashion and pop culture. Having spent many years in exile, the two are kind of shorter-term, real-time versions of Austin Powers, having gone away at a time in which they were the epitome of cool and edginess (at least in the world of Zoolander) to reemerge in an age in which they quickly dubbed “old” and “lame”. Only a single, brief scene is dedicated to the two heroes trying to make sense of intolerable irony of the hipster aesthetic to which they are being exposed. One would think that the idea of “losing one’s edge” would be a subject the man who created and starred in the revolutionary The Ben Stiller Show and, more recently, has been the lead in the A Night at the Museum series could sink his teeth into (to see Stiller address this issue in far more satisfying fashion, watch Greenberg and While We’re Young, the pair of Noah Baumbach films in which he stars). Unfortunately, this story element is quickly jettisoned in favor of the faux-thriller plotting.
Zoolander No. 2 is not devoid of laughs; Stiller and Wilson still wear their respective roles comfortably and the supporting cast are game, if not particularly well-served (Saturday Night Live MVP Kyle Mooney is especially good as the epitome of hipster trash). All the silliness of the original Zoolander is present but none of the joy, leading to a kind of manic lethargy, to coin a term, that never lifts. There’s so little energy that one wonders why any of the original film’s cast bothered to come back at all, almost as though everyone involved said “let’s make the funniest film we can manage without straining ourselves”. And, because of the assembled talent, Stiller and company were able to make an intermittently funny, if largely joyless, comedy. As of this writing, it seems there will be very little artistic or economic motivation to make a third Zoolander feature; it’s too bad, Derek deserved better.