There's something almost vaudevillian about Ben Stiller's brand of comedy performance. He mostly avoids the baggy pants, prop dependency, and broad racial stereotypes that filled turn-of-the-20th-century stages. But whether he's starring in other people's comedies, like Flirting With Disaster and the Meet The Parents series, or directing himself in Tropic Thunder and the Zoolander films, he always seems to be performing in a different, bigger, older style than everyone else around him. He puts on silly voices. He makes goofy faces. He bugs out his eyes, pooches out his lips, and cocks his head from side to side like a bird eyeing its next worm. And above all, he plays the kind of character that would have played well in vaudeville: dumb, helpless, and easily provoked. His characters in dramas are usually gently stymied by the gap between what they want and what they can achieve. His comedy characters aren't that different: they just drop the subtlety, and most of the humanity.
A retread of the first film, done louder and bigger
And that's the problem with Zoolander 2. Stiller is mugging as hard as he can, and it mostly doesn't work. Nearly everything about the sequel to 2001's Zoolander, from Stiller's goony fake voice to the specific situations and gags, is a retread of the first film, done louder and bigger. His "BEHOLD ME, I AM ACTING" performance gives Zoolander 2 an energy it wouldn't get from restraint and nuance. But his painfully overeager performance makes it all the more uncomfortable whenever a scene isn't working. The bits can't just flow by when he's so visibly throwing himself into each one.
Stiller introduced dumb-as-rocks Derek Zoolander in a series of short videos during the VH1 Fashion Awards, then brought him to the big screen in 2001's Zoolander. In that film, the washed-up male model gets roped into a Manchurian Candidate-esque brainwashed-assassin conspiracy by a shadowy cabal of fashion elite. Stiller plays Derek as a narcissistic, easily manipulated moron who's just aware enough to be upset by his own limitations, like the fact that he only has three professional facial expressions. Still, by the end of the film, he's exposed his industry's corruption and found love with an intelligent woman, journalist Matilda Jeffries (played by Christine Taylor, Stiller's wife). They have a child together. They start their own charity foundation, "The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too." And above all, he leaves the fashion industry, which the film portrays as a rat's nest of shallow, malevolent idiots and their vapid hangers-on.
Naturally, Zoolander 2 needs to undo all this progress to get back to its original ground. So the film's opening moments reveal that the Zoolander Center collapsed two days after opening, due to one of Derek's dumb mistakes. The accident kills Matilda and scars Derek's best friend and male-model rival Hansel (Owen Wilson). Child services take Derek Jr. into custody after Derek proves incompetent at single-dad life. Derek spends years in exile, but eventually, his friend Billy Zane (as himself, as in Zoolander) shows up to persuade him to return to modeling and get his son back. Conveniently, fashion maven Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) has just invited Derek and Hansel to model a new line by designer Don Atari (Saturday Night Live's Kyle Mooney) at a show in Rome.
It's a mark of Zoolander 2's sloppiness that it never really remarks on the fact that Derek and Hansel are now aching to win back the approval of all the dim blowhards they spent the last movie escaping. But at least the setup lets Stiller dive back into the first film's broad fashion-industry satire. Alexanya, with her non-functional mummy outfits, hideous makeup, and outrageous, incomprehensible accent, is a fairly funny one-note joke, largely relegated to the background. But Mooney's Don Atari, with his hipster love of the ugly and dysfunctional, suggests the much smarter, snarkier, more pointed satire the film could have been. His rambling delivery is entertainingly dense and baffling, constantly blending insults with compliments, as he praises "shitty tattoos" and swoons over anything he sees as "lame." Unlike many other aspects of the film, Don Atari is actually about something specific and current, about how loving the unlovable has become its own meaningful fashion statement, and about how ironic fandom complicates real fandom. Don Atari's aggressive embrace of anything off-putting or unsettling results in the film's most troubled gag — a pan-gender model named All (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose portrayal has deeply offended the trans community in general, and trans models in specific — but he stands out as one of the few plot elements that aren't entirely steeped in reflexive absurdity.
And there certainly is a lot of absurdity, especially around Hansel, who's trying to navigate a loving, committed relationship with the 11-member orgy that rocked his world in Zoolander: a group that includes an 150-year-old elf, a sumo wrestler, and Kiefer Sutherland. It says something about Zoolander 2 that the film's most absurd sequence isn't the one where all 11 orgy members, Sutherland included, reveal that Hansel got them pregnant. But Wilson has a way of making the asinine and ridiculous seem rational by approaching it with a calm, mollifying tone. He tones down his own mugging from Zoolander this time out, retreating to a more familiar reasonable-and-rational act that makes Stiller's much more exaggerated performance look even falser by contrast.
Stiller and his co-writers (Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg, and Leftovers star Justin Theroux, who reprises his Zoolander role as "Evil DJ") shoot at some mighty broad and easy targets in Zoolander 2, which makes it annoying that they land so few meaningful shots. It's a gushing gasoline pump of a film, spewing in all directions. One plotline, on loan from The Da Vinci Code, involves a secret bloodline going back to the Garden of Eden. Another has Derek trying to reconcile with his son (Cyrus Arnold) who, to his horror, has grown up fat and unfashionable. A third has Interpol agent Penélope Cruz trying to solve the murder of various pop stars who all posted duck-face selfies as their final act. A fourth has Derek's old nemesis Mugatu (Will Farrell) engineering a Fashion Prison escape. And when in doubt, Stiller and his team rely on cameos, from an enjoyably ridiculous opening bit involving Justin Bieber to a tedious climax featuring various real-world fashion icons, shot separately and awkwardly integrated into the same scene. The surprise David Bowie pop-up was one of the highlights of the original Zoolander, so the sequel tries to recreate the magic by doing something similar every few moments.
And that becomes the entirety of Zoolander 2's ethos. It's a familiar sequel strategy — if it worked last time, bring it back again, and hit it harder. But while it feels like the film is aimed strictly at existing Zoolander fans who want more Billy Zane jokes, more of Mugatu's bellowing, and more of Derek's linguistic flubs (like his complaint that he's become "a laughing stick"), the writers otherwise seem fundamentally confused about who's likely to show up, and how easily they can access the references. Punchlines go by at a manic pace, and the overstuffed plot suggests the writers expect a quick-witted audience who don't need a story center as long as funny stuff keeps piling up. At other times, Stiller eases up on the pace in service of overstretched, self-indulgent business with his character. And whether the film is whisking along or dragging, the script bends over backward to identify the cameos ("Neil deGrasse Tyson? What are you doing here?") and explain the jokes. ("Look! They're sexy-fighting!" Farrell yells when Cruz and another fetish-clad woman start clawing at each other.) Too much of the film is being patiently spoon-fed to viewers who are presumed to have Derek Zoolander-level IQs.
The original Zoolander was a box-office flop, in part because it hit theaters just two weeks after September 11th, 2001. It was met with immediate and profound critical rejection from a country that wasn't in the mood for slight, light comedy. (Roger Ebert was particularly unamused over the ill-timed foreign-assassination plotline, though Ben Stiller claims Ebert personally apologized to him years later for the resulting one-star write-up.) But like so many comedies, Zoolander found a cult audience in home release, where viewers had the freedom to tune in and out at will. Zoolander 2 may work equally well in low-stakes environments: in the background at parties, in late-night cable reruns, as a casual Redbox rental or subscription-service time-waster. Couch-jockeying remote-control-wielders will find plenty of lively bits scattered throughout the film.
But on the big screen, demanding immediate and constant attention, Zoolander 2 just feels pushy and self-important in a way that's at odds with its random-access hit-and-miss humor. Where the first film was content with straight-faced silliness, Zoolander 2 tries to blow the same silliness out to epic, world-spanning proportions, and it just winds up feeling overstretched. Like Stiller with his ridiculous characters and stylized performances, it's consistently trying way too hard.