Great sequels are rare. Great comedy sequels are damn near unicorns.
Full disclosure – I fucking LOVE the first Zoolander. It’s a movie my friends and I still regularly quote to this day. It’s frankly impossible for any of us to hear Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and not think of orange mocha frappucinos. And when you meet other people who know lines like “Mer-Man!” or “Listen to your friend Billy Zane…” you instantly feel a unique bond with them. It’s just a movie that’s very easy to fall in love with.
So naturally, when I heard rumblings of a long-incubated sequel finally becoming a reality, I had the same thought a lot of die-hard fans had: Goddamit. If there’s one thing that the cinema gods have taught us over the years – the one paradigm that seems like an infinitely difficult nut to crack – it’s of the elusive great comedy sequel that mirrors or surpasses the quality of its predecessor. Some of the best recent original comedies received lukewarm if not altogether abysmal sequels – The Hangover, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Ted to name a few. And those are contemporary examples; for Zoolander 2 it’s a passage of time totaling nearly 15 years since the original bowed in theaters. It’s usually foreboding when a sequel in any genre is released such a long time after the first installment’s release. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, anyone? Could Ben Stiller and his team finally figure out the great comedy sequel conundrum with so much to live up to?
The movie starts out with a recap of Derek Zoolander’s life (Stiller reprises the titular role) since the ending of the first film. He’s fallen on difficult times – his wife, Matilda (Christine Taylor), is no longer in the picture; he’s had a fallout with best bud, Hansel (Owen Wilson); and, most devastating of all, he has lost custody of his son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold) and hasn’t even seen him in years. Furthermore, he has walked away from the limelight of modeling and lives in seclusion.
One dark, snowy night an old friend presents a hologram message to Derek from esteemed fashion figure, Alexonya Atoz (a nearly unrecognizable Kristen Wiig) – a job offer that will get Derek back on the runway. His journey takes him to Rome where he crosses paths with Hansel again. They are then approached by a sexy Interpol agent from the fashion crimes division, Melanie Valentina (Penelope Cruz), who believes only Derek can unlock the mystery linking together the deaths of several pop stars. Their alliance also helps him track down and attempt to re-connect with a now teenaged Derek Jr., but it seems as if an unseen foe is pulling all the strings and setting a gigantic trap for Zoolander and all of those closest to him.
There are definitely some big laughs early on (including a hilarious celebrity cameo with a deliciously vicious on-screen death). At times (but not nearly enough), Zoolander 2 also channels the brilliance of the original in making fun of the inane trends of high fashion chic. There’s some occasionally great cameo work, especially from an emotional Kiefer Sutherland and Benedict Cumberbatch as the androgynous, ethnically ambiguous model, All.
The biggest tragedy of Zoolander 2 is that its biggest laughs retread the exact same gags from the first movie. And this is particularly bad because you have to remember that first one is now almost 15 years old! So you’re telling me that in that decade and a half Stiller couldn’t come up with fresh, inspired material?! He still feels compelled to rehash the same jokes he came up with around the millennium? Mind you, the material doesn’t feel dated…just disappointing.
In the beginning, most of the jokes are about how antiquated Derek and Hansel are, but they tend to fall a bit flat because there is no real progression in the humoristic approach of the narrative itself from when we last saw them. It’s also a shame they didn’t do more with Penelope Cruz’s Valentina beyond turning her into an ornament with Saturday morning cartoon character-level development; she’s done great work in comedy before (Woman on Top).
Moreover, even in the first Zoolander, Matilda was a real character – a strong, intelligent woman who even had a troubled past that shed light on her disdain for the superficial. She could carry scenes on her own without Derek or Hansel on the screen. Valentina and just about every other supporting player in Zoolander 2 really isn’t that fun or engaging. Derek Jr. is one of the story’s most important characters, but even with much more screen time, he had none of the charm of Brint, Rufus or Meekus. This installment needed a Maury Ballstein type or another trip back to Derek’s coal mining hometown.
If there’s one key element Zoolander 2 is missing, it’s that this film is devoid of the heart its predecessor had. We could identify with Derek’s fall from grace, the loss of his close friends and his desire to want to get back on top. It was easy to root for him. This time around everything feels much more artificial and forced. As a fan of the original, I felt like I should be relishing every new, long-awaited moment spent with these people I’ve missed for nearly two decades…but that’s hard to do when they’re doing the same gags we remember them for. It’s like drinking with that one uncle who has the same arsenal of stories he likes to tell when he gets hammered…sure, they’re great the first time around and maybe a few times after. But if he’s doing it after not seeing him for 15 years, that’s just lame and sad. Zoolander was undoubtedly a silly and ridiculous movie, but it was still grounded in intelligent and ambitious humor brimming with originality. Unfortunately, the trend doesn’t continue here.
While Zoolander 2 offers a few moments for fans to appreciate, its frequent regression to old gags undermines its overall effort. It’s too bad because the talent was intact and there are topical issues that could have set this up to be something great such as ageism in show business or adapting to rigid PC work climates when re-starting a career. There was also a missed opportunity for a hilarious spoof of Face/Off. But this is, after all, a comedy sequel. And we all know how elusive greatness can be in just about all of those.