The biggest crisis to hit the celebrity world in Zoolander 2 is sparked by the catastrophe-heralding collision of two of the greatest forces in millennial pop culture, neither of which were household concepts when the first Zoolander opened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks: Justin Bieber and the selfie. The cruel cycle of fame is quick to discard yesterday’s darlings, a fate sure to befall this flat sequel to 2001’s goofy comedy about a dim male model saving the world. In 2016, Zoolander 2 perceptively argues, there is a fate worse than death: obsolescence. Choosing the wrong Instagram filter? A close runner-up.
Like the first Zoolander, the long-awaited sequel is a mish-mash of random jokes, fashion pokes, and endless celebrity cameos that begin with the grandiose sight of the Biebs dying in a glorious hail of bullets. He’s the latest in a string of pop megastars who’ve been found murdered sporting Blue Steel pouts on their faces, and his death is one of a few clumsy contrivances that pulls Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) out of early retirement and into a tedious plot involving another global fashion conspiracy and Da Vinci Code-like historical intrigue.
Legit news personalities take us through the tragedy that sent the world’s most beloved fashion model into self-imposed exile after the events of Zoolander. Days after ground broke on the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Who Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, the ground literally broke beneath it, thanks to faulty building materials. The accident left Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) dead, fellow male model Hansel (Owen Wilson) horribly disfigured, and the world utterly turned against poor Derek Zoolander.
In the ensuing PR crisis, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour tell us, Zoolander lost custody of his son Derek Jr. and dejectedly disappeared from the fashion world, banishing himself to the lonely wilds of “extreme northern New Jersey.” That’s where actor Billy Zane (playing actor Billy Zane) finds him, years later, pouting under a thick mane and beard. He sends Derek on a mission to Rome to reclaim the catwalk in a hot new runway show for a leather-skinned Donatella Versace-like design icon named Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) that’s sure to help him get back Derek Jr.
Zane completes his cameo duties by trekking to the high desert wilds of Malibu to find Hansel hiding his hideous, career-ending facial scar under a gilded mask. He’s happily leading a New Agey sex cult, but when he learns he’s impregnated all 11 members of his orgy—including Kiefer Sutherland, playing Kiefer Sutherland in Zoolander 2’s most delightfully left-field cameo—his daddy issues give him cold feet and he bolts to Rome, where he grudgingly reunites with Derek.
Zoolander 2 struts along with purpose, and a hint of barbed cultural commentary, as Derek and Hansel find themselves the punchline of a world that has evolved far beyond their squinty Y2K-era metrosexual stares. Arriving in Italy’s fashion capital, they’re welcomed into a new order built on faux-haute street pretension that they can’t fathom. They’re put up in digs that they’re smugly informed were made from “repurposed human waste” and struggle to decipher Don Atari (standout Kyle Mooney), the bad boy designer taking the world by storm with his aggressively ironic trash-hipster steez and carefully contrived sense of hostile apathy for every trend that’s come before.
Of course Skrillex is the resident DJ playing Don Atari’s runway show. Of course there’s a skeezy Terry Richardson-type lurking in the background. And of course there’s a hot swimsuit model-turned-Interpol agent named Valentina (Penelope Cruz, admirably game) who taps Zoolander and Hansel to investigate the connection between those dead celebrities and a centuries-old mystical quest for the Fountain of Youth involving the blood sacrifice of a “Chosen One.” Zoolander, meanwhile, is delighted to learn that the son he abandoned years ago is living at a nearby orphanage—but horrified to discover Derek Jr. has grown into a chubby adolescent who despises him.
All of which exists in order to lead up to the reintroduction of Zoolander’s No. 1 nemesis, the evil fashionista Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who’s been imprisoned in solitary confinement in fashion jail since the last movie. Unfortunately, neither Mugatu nor Ferrell have as much purpose here as they did in Zoolander. Although he claims his years behind bars have made him crazier—and given him a new, beefed-up bod and bald dome covered in tattoos—Mugatu reverts back to his poodle-haired coif just in time to rehash the same adversarial beats with Zoolander, down to a bit in which Zoolander must get his mojo back to conjure his super-powered Magnum pout.
There are welcome surprises to be had, if fleeting. Benedict Cumberbatch channels Tilda Swinton-esque majesty as a gender-fluid art world darling named All who represents just how far the fashion world has moved on from Derek’s guylinered Blue Steel heyday. There’s a different kind of inspired genius in the uncanny power of watching Fred Armisen’s head CGed onto the body of an 11-year-old as a pint-sized social media intern named VIP—a character so unsettling to behold, he’s simultaneously fascinating and revolting.
The script by Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg occasionally hits the right notes before the film death-marches its way through a tiresome succession of espionage movie clichés. Zoolander 2 is already overstuffed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by random celebrities like Joe Jonas, Olivia Munn, Ariana Grande, and Trudie Styler. (Sting, on the other hand, gets a full-blown supporting role playing himself, of course, as a member of a secret order of rock stars anointed by God.)
By the time Zoolander 2 gets to a green-screened rooftop gag featuring Katy Perry and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, you’ll long for the simple bygone pleasures of a high-stakes model-vs.-model walk-off that never arrives.
That’s why Zoolander 2’s most showy cameos from actual fashion luminaries are the nails in the couture-lined coffin. Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs, and two Wangs—Vera and Alexander—are among the real-life fashion legends who play themselves in the film’s sadly uninspired last act. To its credit, Zoolander 2 exploits them in a surprisingly bold plot twist by tapping the old guard as veterans keenly aware of their own limited shelf life—only to sell it out moments later, softening the bite. Either destroy the establishment, or don’t; the only thing worse than falling out of fashion is realizing you played yourself out in the first place.