Director, co-writer and star Ben Stiller resurrects his "really, really, ridiculously good-looking" male model alter ego 15 years after the irresistible first movie overcame disappointing box office results to earn cult adoration on DVD. But the imbecilic charms of a character that began as TV sketch material are too often misplaced in this wildly over-plotted, under-energized action comedy, plumped to a bursting point with celebrity cameos.
The goodwill of original fans and the fun of playing spot the star (especially in a Hansel orgy) should give the Paramount release an initial boost. But it seems more likely to be a fashion-week flash than a season-long sensation.
The fashion industry was certainly ripe for satire when Zoolander came along in 2001, though opening two weeks after 9/11 was awkward timing for such a proudly frivolous voyage to the outer limits of pop-cultural vapidity.
In the past decade-and-a-half, fashion has evolved even further into the mainstream. Project Runway democratized the craft of the designer, just as America's Next Top Model did for the career path of the professional clotheshorse. Stylists have become demi-celebrities, and the annual Met Costume Institute Gala has ballooned into the Super Bowl of red carpets.
Meanwhile, label whores both fictional (Carrie Bradshaw) and non- (Paris Hilton, the Kardashians) have turned conspicuous consumption into an aspirational career, while social media and selfies have spawned legions of spotlight-hungry supermodels — at least in their own minds.
All that should have provided delicious fodder for the screenwriting team, led by Justin Theroux, who also reprises his role from the earlier film as an evil henchman to Will Ferrell's petulant villain, Mugatu. But paradoxically, the sequel gets far less mileage than its predecessor out of the real-world absurdities of a target industry that takes itself so very seriously.
When even icy style guru Anna Wintour is among the insiders clamoring to make a self-parodying appearance, the subversive edge gets blunted.
Despite its relentless name-checking, Zoolander 2 functions strictly within its own goofy screen-comedy universe, so its satire is toothless. The dim-witted Derek Zoolander, his former runway rival Hansel (Owen Wilson, back in full butterscotch-stallion mode), and tantrum-throwing monster Mugatu are stitched into a high-concept story of celebrity serial murders, a mythical promise of eternal youth and a conspiracy to wipe out the most influential figures in fashion. By comparison, the original movie's plot to brainwash Derek into assassinating the Malaysian prime minister seems a model of linear clarity.
The bigger issue, however, is that not one of the patchy sequel's threads really holds together, even within the elastic boundaries of farce.
The opening features one of the most amusing cameos, which is also given away in the trailer. After a high-speed chase along Rome's cobblestone alleys, a motorcyclist hitman rains down bullets on Justin Bieber, who Instagrams a final selfie as he's dying. Interpol fashion division chief Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz) identifies the Bieb's cheek-sucking farewell pout as one of Zoolander's classic looks, Blue Steel, linking the death to a chain of recent beautiful-people slayings.
Meanwhile, Derek and Hansel, after withdrawing from the industry following a tragic accident, have been in hiding for 10 years in hilariously far-flung locations. An invitation from fashion empress Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) lures them to Rome, where her protege, Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), has elevated hipster negativity into the defining style statement du jour.
Needless to say, Derek and Hansel don't get it. But the jokes about these dolts being left behind by the industry that once glorified them run out of juice fast.
Valentina draws them into her investigation ("She's hot. I trust her," says Hansel in a welcome bit of throwaway humor), leading Derek to his estranged son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who was removed from his custody and raised in a Roman orphanage. At the same time, Hansel wrestles with his own paternity issues, seeking distraction via some epic kink.
This choppy midsection loses momentum as the writers toss gags at the screen with varying success, relying on our existing affection for the returning characters rather than providing persuasive new reasons to invest. Sure, it's a kick to see Stiller and Wilson back in the shoes of these camera-ready cretins, but for every joke that sparks there are several that just lay there.
The counterbalancing effect of the first film's civilian love-interest and investigative accomplice, Matilda (Christine Taylor, who pops up only briefly), is missing here. Cruz looks sensational and seems game for anything, but especially once Valentina's past as a swimsuit model is revealed, she stops being an effective foil for the clueless self-absorption of Derek and Hansel.
It's a full hour before Ferrell arrives to goose the tempo, when Mugatu breaks out of fashion prison and tastes liberty by tossing a steaming latte in the face of his fawning assistant, Todd (Nathan Lee Graham). However, his ecstatic reunion with Alexanya promises more than it delivers.
Wiig scores some of designer Leesa Evans' most outrageous costumes, and is a riot in a bizarre caricature that stands alongside her most out-there SNL turns. But she's woefully underutilized — a sketch creation poorly integrated into the story. If you've seen the mock promo online, in which diction-challenged waxwork Alexanya touts her age-defying Youth Milk, you've seen the best of the performance.
The same applies to Benedict Cumberbatch's bit as gender-nonconforming supermodel All (the subject of a tempest-in-a-teapot controversy
— this is harmless satire, not damaging misrepresentation). Other featured roles, like Fred Armisen's 11-year-old social media maven (more of a CG trick than an actual character), or Mooney's anti-fashion freak, just add to the busy fatigue of it all.
Ferrell's singular brand of extreme comedy is broad and shameless enough to cut through all the strained plot mechanics, so the film acquires some much-needed propulsion once the shrieking Mugatu takes center-stage. (Just the way his eyes widen in tantalized outrage as he watches two women "sexy fighting" is priceless.) But from the wrangling of top-tier fashionistas to the Star Wars-inspired revelation of Hansel's origins, the climactic action smacks more of try-anything desperation than cleverness — though fans will be thrilled to see a late returnee from the first film.
The movie boasts lots of eye-catching locations in the Italian capital — Bieber gets mowed down by the Pantheon; Alexanya's HQ is the Fascist architectural landmark, Palazzo della Civilta; and her hot-ticket Incredi-Ball takes place at the Baths of Caracalla. It's all shot with vigor and a glossy paintbox by Dan Mindel, fresh off The Force Awakens, and it's drenched in a thunderous score by Theodore Shapiro. But like a cute little outfit burdened with too many accessories, Zoolander 2 is a victim of overkill.