This review contains spoilers for Zoolander 2. (And the first one, but you’ve only yourself to blame if you haven’t seen it.)
When I was young, a sequel to a much-loved film was to be cherished. Like Moses coming down the mountain with stone-based guidelines, it was a rare occurrence. Now, like a parish priest’s weekly sermon: it’s expected, often a little too long, and always underwhelming.
So it was that they announced Zoolander 2. My heart soared. One of my favourite comedies of the last 15 years, I took to the first film instantly, unlike most cinema-going audiences. There was something about the fusing of sheer stupidity and conspiracy ‘thriller’ that really caught my imagination.
Unfortunately, it seems few people’s imaginations were ensnared by Z2.
I’m not a person who usually goes into a film with low expectations, but it’s fair to say that, despite my excitement, when I sat down to watch Zoolander 2, my expectations were limbo dancing with Gary Coleman. As it turns out, that apprehension was well founded. Zoolander 2 was a bit of a disappointment. A few good moments and some excellent Zoolanderisms aside, it was a let down.
Surprisingly for a sequel, it wasn’t due to a lack of ambition. I love Ben Stiller as a Director – I find him comparable to Edgar Wright in terms of visual kineticism (thank you Media Studies AS Level). In his vision and scope for Zoolander 2, he pretty much delivers. Yet when it comes to jokes and story, increasingly, I find him less assured.
The main issue for me is that this film has nothing to say. An odd criticism when you consider that the first one touched on topics like playful petro fights and whether or not saying ‘earth to…’ constitutes intergalactic communication. However, when you actually look at the first Zoolander, it had a very clear viewpoint.
The plot was centred on the fashion industry’s attempts to derail child labour laws in Malaysia. Well-known fashion figures were painted as Bond-esque villains, hiding in the shadows, dishing out executions to tip the political balance in their favour. Yes it was silly, but it was saying something. Compare it to Z2’s cameo-laden finale in which real fashion icons were invited to back-slap along with the start, and the filmmaker’s point of view starts to feel hollow.
The same can be said of Matilda (Christine Taylor, given the shortest shrift of all returnees). In the first film, her great tragedy was her childhood struggle with bulimia at the hands of impossible body standards and fashion magazines. Again, no one’s saying Zoolander was the new Battleship Potemkin, but it’s definitely a more insightful approach than what Z2 does with Taylor’s replacement, Penelope Cruz, and her inability to break into catwalk modelling because her breasts were too voluptuous. Cue erection joke.
Without such a clear focus, the result is a sequel un-tethered from anything resembling reality. Fashion model assassins may have been moronic, but it was get-able. Eternal youth and human sacrifices feel like a film grasping at a plot – especially when the villain reveals it’s all made up anyway. And at one point, a woman swims with all the power of a genetically altered dolphin. Real, this isn’t.
The film flip-flops between half-telling an elaborate, mythical story and then undermining it. Everything is pasted over with pointless celebrity cameos and failed attempts at meta-humour. Characters that blatantly signal their emotional exposition isn’t a joke, it’s lazy writing.
And that brings us on to Benedict Cumberbatch, in the first of his roles that no one really wants to see (soon to be followed by his turn in A Sort of Scientist: The Prof. Brian Cox Story). He plays (albeit briefly) the androgynous model ‘All’. The point of the scene, I’m assuming, is to show us Zoolander’s inability to grasp the modern fashion world, and indeed, society. But, unsurprisingly, it feels misjudged.
I can absolutely see why the transgender community would find this offensive, even if it’s played as wrong. But when you consider the fact that Hansel’s entire plotline is his relationship with members of an orgy (including a goat, a gimp and Kiefer Sutherland), then none of the characters’ views feel consistent, even in the admittedly ridiculous world the film creates.
How can truly pansexual characters (certainly compared to Deadpool) be unable to accept other members of the LGBT community? It’s this lack of consistency, as well as the unnecessarily harsher tone, that annoys me.
Not only that, but in the 15 year interim it seems that while the writers, Stiller, Justin Theroux, John Hamburg and Nicholas Stoller, have remembered a lot of the jokes from the original – hence their endless repetition – they’ve forgotten why they were funny. The result is like watching your favourite meal being reheated by candle light – slow and lukewarm.
Many of the jokes don’t land like you’d hope they would, some being so sign-posted that you’re just killing time until they arrive. There are occasional flashes of the humour that made the first what it was (the ‘slash’ conversation with Billy Zane is a worthy successor to the aforementioned ‘earth to…’ scene) but they’re few and far between.
One of my favourite moments from the original is Derek’s agent, Maury Ballstein (Stiller Sr. tragically absent this time), discussing zip disk files and whether he can reheat a casserole with his wife, via blue tooth during the film’s climax. It’s a moment of truthful comedy that nicely grounds the ridiculous elements.
There’s none of that here. It feels like the writers were throwing out jokes in the hope that they’d not only stick, but hopefully congeal into a faintly tangible plot. The first film was tightly scripted with a high gag rate and a story that at least played with the conventions of a mystery plot – this fumbles around hitting beats that should offer up moments of comic invention or intrigue, but rarely do.
It was always going to be compared to Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, but where that film had a new direction and a story to tell (the rise of 24 hour news channels), Zoolander 2 looks is still scrabbling round trying to find it’s pants by the time the credits role.
All in all, I wanted to like Zoolander 2; and seeing Stiller, Wilson and Farrell return to those familiar roles was enough to plaster a smile of my face for the majority of the runtime. Unfortunately, despite what the filmmakers might think, that wasn’t enough. In a film that urges its main character to remember who he is in order to save the day, it’s a shame the Stiller and co. didn’t learn the same lesson.