Zoolander No. 2

As a general rule, comedy sequels are a bad idea: they often lose the element of surprise that made the original such fun, they end up repeating jokes that everyone liked the first time around and they have a tendency to deliver a more-contrived version of the first film's plot. However, none of that explains the wretchedness of Zoolander No. 2, a movie so persistently unfunny and creatively bankrupt that you begin to doubt your fond memories of the original. Watching Stiller struggle to recapture the old magic, I couldn't help but think of Ordell's line to Louis near the end of Jackie Brown: “What the f--- happened to you, man? S---, your ass used to be beautiful!”

The film begins with a great big info-dump that helps us get up to speed on what's happened to Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and friends over the past fifteen years. Derek's charity center collapsed – quite literally – a mere two days after it was built, and his wife (Christine Taylor, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) was killed in the accident. Derek tried to raise his young son Derek Jr. on his own, but the state eventually decided that the dim-witted model was unfit to raise children and took the boy away. Now, Derek lives alone in the wintry wasteland of New Jersey, watching DVDs from Netflix (“Jack Ryan and Jack Reacher... tonight's gonna be a total Jack-off!”) and brooding over his pain. Derek's best friend and fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited) was injured in the building collapse, too, and his scars have turned him into a Phantom of the Opera-esque recluse who wears a gold mask.

One day, Derek gets a message from fashion icon Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, Welcome to Me), who wants him to come to Rome and participate in her annual fashion show. Derek reluctantly agrees, and soon finds himself patching up his relationship with Hansel, working his way back into the fashion world, re-uniting with Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold, Hardcore Henry), facing off against the villainous Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell, Step Brothers) and working with secret agent Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz, Volver) to solve an international mystery involving the death of several major pop stars.

This is entirely too much plot for a film this insubstantial, and it quickly ends up weighing down the film. The assassination plot that drove the original Zoolander was every bit as nonsensical as anything this film serves up, but it mostly served as a bulletin board for the filmmakers to pin jokes on. Sure, it was cliched, but it was also lean, focused and unobtrusive. In contrast, Zoolander No. 2 never really gives its characters time to breathe: there's always a new twist to deliver, a new pile of lame exposition to serve up, or a new contrivance to make saving the day even more of a headache.

Perhaps the film's wearisome “trying too hard” vibe wouldn't seem so obvious if the jokes were half as good as those served up in the first film. I'm a little shocked by how lazy the screenplay (co-written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg) is, offering a combination of badly-recycled jokes from the first movie and incredibly clumsy new gags. In one scene, Derek and Hansel wander outside and simultaneously shout, “WHO AM I?” at the sky. Then, Katy Perry turns up out of nowhere and sings the phrase. Derek and Hansel say hello to Katy Perry. Then, Neil deGrasse Tyson turns up, offers a brief pseudo-profound statement on the universe and signs off by saying, “I”m Neil deGrasse Tyson... bitch!” End of scene. You guys had fifteen years to think of ideas for a Zoolander sequel and this is what you come up with?

There are a lot of funny actors in the movie, but almost none of them are given a chance to be funny. Stiller's comic timing is off: he often feels more like a man doing a passable imitation of Zoolander rather than the genuine article. Wilson does his relaxed, spaced-out act, but the weird chemistry he previously had with Stiller is gone. Ferrell bellows his lines at the top of his lungs, perhaps hoping that bringing a lot of raw energy to the table will make up for the limp writing (it doesn't). Kristen Wiig's whole character is basically a weird accent, and Penelope Cruz's character is defined by a handful of lame monologues about her boobs.

Naturally, there are a host of celebrity cameos once again, but the film screws these up, too. In the first Zoolander, the cameos were quick, effective surprises: a parade of stars wandering through the film, delivering a quick joke or two and generally adding to the sense that Derek lived in a world of A-list luxury. This time, a lot of the celebrities get small, terminally unfunny subplots (because if there's one thing this film needed more of, it's story). Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) plays an androgynous model, Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) plays an 11-year-old boy (one imagines someone saying, “I mean, we have to spend this big effects budget on something...”), Kiefer Sutherland (24) plays the leader of an “orgy group” in love with Hansel, and they're all just terrible. Even worse are the moments where various rock stars and fashion icons turn up as themselves: they're generally required to state their full name (or let one of the other characters gasp their name in surprise), just in case some audience members don't immediately recognize them (“Hello, Marc by Marc Jacobs!”).

To be honest, I'm a little sad that Zoolander No. 2 even exists. This isn't one one of those “not as good, but fun enough” sequels like Anchorman 2 or even one of those “mostly disappointing, but watchable” sequels like Ghostbusters 2. It's a flat-out trainwreck; a 102-minute display of talented people embarrassing themselves in material that cashes in on their previous achievements in the cheapest possible way. Time to deliver the eugoogooly for this franchise.

Zoolander No. 2

Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2016