‘I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good-looking,’ said a pouty Derek Zoolander back in 2001.
Well, apparently not. Because Zoolander 2, the long-awaited sequel to Ben Stiller’s cult hit undercutting the male-model industry, is a good-looking bore, a fashion faux pas where hot celebrities such as Kate Moss, Penélope Cruz and Kim Kardashian are parachuted in to make a relentlessly dreary script look good.
Except they don’t. They can’t. What on earth was Stiller thinking? Or Owen Wilson, back here as the loveable frenemy Hansel. Or, for that matter, the endless parade of fashion and rock-star cameos? Anna Wintour, Justin Bieber, Sting. Even the great Benedict Cumberbatch, in a desperately unfunny ‘ambigender’ role that’s already ruffled a few feathers. They’re given nothing to work with. Did none of them ask about the plot before signing up?
Perhaps that’s a little unfair. After all, the plot of the first film was equally absurd, so presumably all these celebs simply assumed that the recipe for success lay in that absurdity (it didn’t — more on that in a bit). Back then, Derek Zoolander (Stiller), stupid male supermodel extraordinaire, was brainwashed by the great designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) into killing the Malaysian Prime Minister, whose progressive child-labour laws were putting a dent in worldwide fashion profits. Naturally.
In the sequel (originally titled Twolander, apparently) Mugatu is back, but he’s bigger and far badder. And instead of fashion-world skulduggery we have a pseudo-religious historical conspiracy of Dan Brown-esque proportions (seriously — there are monastic robes). Things haven’t turned out so well for Zoolander. His wife and child are gone, as is The Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too and the world’s former top male model is living alone in the wilderness, by his own description, ‘a hermit crab’.
Hansel, too, the carefree radical to Zoolander’s catwalk convention, has yet to find inner peace. We meet him meditating atop a sand dune, avoiding his ‘ball and chain’ — the eclectic members of an orgy (including Kiefer Sutherland and a goat) with whom he now lives but can’t quite commit to. Somehow this is all supposed to be funny. Hansel and Derek find themselves together in Rome trying to resurrect their careers and things inevitably take a turn for the worse.
There are a lot of jokes that play on the passage of time. Derek and Hansel have been out of the game so long that everything seems foreign and audience members old enough to remember the release of the first film are meant to feel as cast adrift as they do. Zoolander 2 reminds us that 2001 was a time when tiny phones were cooler than huge ones (not any more, thanks iPhone 6 Plus) and when social media didn’t exist. The ‘database’ an Interpol investigator offers to use to help find Derek’s son turns out to be Facebook. Meanwhile, celebrities such as Bieber post pictures of their last moments on earth on Instagram. Instead of making me laugh it just made me feel old.
High fashion is now all super casual and the ‘it’ designers are teenage hipsters with verbal diarrhoea. Derek and Hansel are flummoxed by these new outlandish fashions. But are we meant to be siding with them? Perhaps I’m just sartorially ignorant but I didn’t find these new wardrobes any sillier than the others. Plus, it’s surely too much to expect audiences to laugh at Derek and chums and empathise with them simultaneously. They epitomise far-fetched high fashion. If they are no longer on the inside, then what’s the point? (It doesn’t help that the whole film feels far more in league with the fashion industry than its predecessor, populated by cameos from top designers as well as models.)
It’s hard to put your finger on why some cult hits work and others don’t. Is it just the freshness of the absurdity that makes us laugh? Airplane was hysterical; Airplane 2 wasn’t. Same for the Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun series. Certainly, Zoolander 2 trots out too many of the original jokes.
I don’t think it’s just novelty that’s lacking here though. Zoolander worked not just because it played on the well-worn clichés of the fashion industry (stupid models, unwearable clothes, dubious moral practices) and took them to epic proportions. It worked because its absurdity felt on point and unhurried, like going on a random, drunk night out with the silliest, funniest people you know. Not every joke worked but those that did came out of nowhere and didn’t wait for applause. In its sequel, the jokes, if you can call them that, are trying way too hard.