(SPOILERS) In which Derek Zoolander is brought out of self-imposed retirement, where he has become a hermit crab, following personal mishaps including the literal collapse of his Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Real Good (killing wife Matilda and horribly disfiguring Hansel) and the removal of son Derek Jr into the custody of Child Protection Services, due to the brainless supermodel’s inability to cook pasta even marginally good. Spurred by the prospect that gainful employment will lead to a reunion with his son, Derek Sr returns to the catwalk, but Interpol, and more especially Penelope Cruz’s Valentina Valencia, want him and Hansel to help track down whoever is assassinating pop stars. Pop stars who are dying with one of Derek’s trademark looks adorning their shallow faces. If the plot sounds ungainly and convoluted, it is, and Zoolander 2 takes the best part of an hour to really hit its stride, but when it does, and even when it doesn’t, this belated sequel is often very, very funny, making the resounding slating it has received particularly unjust.
I could perhaps understand the response to Zoolander 2 if you outright hated the first movie. Or have been taking crazy pills. And, of course the comedy genre, of all genres, is the one most in the eye of the beholder. But liking one and not the other seems as odd as rating Austin Powers but despising The Love Guru (I can see I’ve nailed my colours to the mast there; yes, I found Love Guru funny, so there’s probably no reason to read any further).
Structurally then, Zoolander 2 admittedly it isn’t all there. It stumbles in relation to the original, which had economy, trajectory, and forward momentum; Zoolander knew where it was going. This one, pretty much until Will Ferrell’s Mugato returns to the scene, is a stop-start affair, too often listing from side to side when it needs clear direction. Of which, having eugooglized Stiller’s comedy craftsmanship in the first movie, I’ll repeat my declaration and say he’s still got it where it counts, aided and abetted by Dan Mindel as cinematographer. But, during these opening sections, one is frequently aware of inertia diminishing scenes, be it Derek and Hansel statically trading exposition or simply wondering where this is all going.
There’s a decent kernel of an idea in Kyle Mooney’s designer-hipster Don Atari seeing everything in hideously exclaimed, inverted commas, an excruciatingly post-modern monster spawned with nary a new idea in his head. And it might be that his show set in a toxic waste dump is intended to riff accordingly on the crassness of Derelicte in the original, but it actually feels rather repetitive. Nevertheless, when Mugatu eventually snaps his neck there is a welcome sense of pay-off, that having to endure the character has been justified. Generally, though, Zoolander 2 works best when it takes the straightforward approach, such as flat-out to slaying Justin Bieber in the opening sequence (“You’re asking me why I killed Justin Bieber?”)
There’s a danger with such cameos that you end up sucking up to the very person or idea you’re looking to mock; it does, after all, lend the famous (usually desperately needed) credibility if they can show they are in on the joke. However, that doesn’t make Bieber biting the farm any less funny (we learn other expirees are Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Miley Cyrus, Usher, the Boss and Demi Lovato).
This is never more the case than with the coterie of fashion designers attending a satanic sacrifice, in which a child’s heart will be cut out and they will consume his blood (“the blood of Steve”, the first supermodel, played by the first movie’s Alexander Skarsgård). Who would even countenance the idea that fashion designers are evil incarnate, eager participants in an utterly immoral industry and thus wholly deserve of Will Ferrell raining insults down on them? I particularly appreciated that Mugatu has to name them in turn because most of us won’t know who they are on sight.
Stiller mostly has a keen grasp for what will or won’t work. Benedict Cumberbatch’s All treads the fine line of willingness to offend he has skirted to fruitful effect hitherto (Tropic Thunder) and emerges more credibly than The X-Files’ recent attempt to riff humorously on transgender issues, notably in registering the contrasting reactions of Derek and Hansel. Susan Boyle giving the finger might be the funniest moment in a picture that also proffers us a pregnant Keifer Sutherland (“I lost my baby”), the return of the legendary Billy Zane, and Sting.
Sting, complete with introductory subtitle, is part of the picture’s inevitable spate of call-backs to the original, both in terms of being a rock dinosaur substitute for the sadly departed David Bowie and, as Hansel’s father, invoking the model’s vacuous appreciation of the former Police frontman’s music (“I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he’s making it, I respect that”). Sting’s no Bowie as a screen presence, but he’s inoffensive enough, albeit required to reference the usual lamé references to his capacity for tantric sex (Sting will never come close to his appearance on The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, a ticklish validation of the almighty power of corpsing).
Other repeat visits include another Hansel orgy to the reprised accompaniment of Love to Love You Baby, only even more excessive/absurd, complete with Christina Hendricks, Willie Nelson, a hippo, an old crone and a chicken (there’s always room for a good chicken gag). Susan Sarandon delivering a Rocky Horror line falls entirely flat, alas. The “Who am I?” scene is rehearsed several times, most preposterously across Rome rooftops, with Katy Perry being out-cameoed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. An auto-mishap with Derek Jr on board comes close to the original’s freak gasoline fight accident for sustained mirth. And much play is made of Derek’s inability to summon Magnum at will, leading to significant bodily harm.
Stiller even pulls off the difficult repeat of the trick of making a tired, much-spoofed target funny again. In the original it was 2001, here it’s Derek visiting Mugatu in prison, Silence of the Lambs-style. Admittedly, the scene’s success is largely down to the inimitable Ferrell, although on entering other fashion criminal inmates MC Hammer and Skip Taylor (John Malkovich), designer of the Member’s Only jacket can be seen. While Kristen Wiig makes the most of incomprehensible face-lifted fashionista Alexanya Atoz (revealed as Milla Jovovoich’s Katinka Ingabogovinanana), Ferrell is the ace in the picture’s hole, an unhinged whirl of inventiveness, be it revealing the carefully made, not-quite Mission: Impossible face masks with which he plans to escape, tipping his latte over Todd (Nathan Lee Graham) once again, carrying around his stuffed dog (or concealing a bomb in it) or resuming the role of Little Cletus as liquid lard squirts out of a plastic pig’s nostrils.
I’m not clear why Christine Taylor only returned for a cameo (perhaps family commitments), but Cruz fills the straight woman role effectively, with the occasional whacky spin (the revelation of her swimming skills is a likely dividing line for whether you’ll appreciate this movie or not; the fight with Katinka Ingabogovinanana - “They’re sexy fighting”). Stiller and Wilson return to their roles like they’ve never been away, as Derek and Hansel comfortingly fail to let parenting and responsibility tarnish their essential imbecility. Particularly choice is their the horror that Derek’s son (Cyrus Arnold) is overweight (“Does being fat mean you’re a terrible person? I’m really asking you, Hansel”). I was tickled that co-writer Justin Theroux’s Evil DJ is known only as Evil DJ.
Like any comedy, but less so than your typically mega-successful Paul Feig picture, a fair proportion of the gags flounder. Repeated references to entering the Incrediball by the rear entrance are just poor, while Fred Armisen’s 10-year old VIP (his head CGI’d onto a wee body) is just weird in a bad way. But this is a movie to be celebrated, a movie featuring Derek Zoolander as a cowtaur, being milked while gazing rapturously at Naomi Campbell. The chances of a comedy sequel outdoing the original are even less than for sequels generally, but this one’s maligning doesn’t reflect that it is a worthy successor. It’s amazingly stupid that Zoolander 2 is so cold right now.