Sequels, by their very nature, are always about more - more characters, more action, more jokes, more romance, bigger set-pieces, more, more, MORE - yet they must also be reverent to their forbears. As such, sequels are often so overstuffed that the quest for bigger and better comes at the expense of entertainment. This is doubly true for comedies. That said, Zoolander 2 is going to have to be graded on a curve. The original film was a surprise. Even as a 17 year old Ben Stiller zealot, I remember approaching it with hesitance. I'd seen the sketches upon which it was based and knew that the idiotic male model schtick wouldn't be enough to sustain a full length movie ... and I was dead wrong. Zoolander was a surprise hit, making converts out of even the most committed naysayers. Naturally, a sequel became an inevitability, but in the 15 years between each film a lot has changed. The comedy landscape is different now, and what was once a fertile ground for Zoolander's brand of tomfoolery has all but become arid. Add that to the aforementioned burdens facing sequels, and Zoolander 2 is fighting an uphill battle from the gate.
The story takes place in the present day. Derek Zoolander has become a recluse after his "Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Want to Learn to do Other Stuff Good" collapsed, killing his wife, permanently "disfiguring" Hansel, and setting off a chain of events which resulted in Derek Jr. being taken away by child services. When a string of celebrities are murdered, each leaving a "Blue Steel" selfie as their final stand, Derek is called back into action by the International Fashion Police, lead by a criminally underused Penelope Cruz. You see, Derek and Hansel have been invited to partake in a fashion show put on by Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, doing wonders with a too-small role), who may or may not have ties to the underworld of fashion ... and the evil Jacobim Mugatu. Did I mention that Hansel is facing fatherhood? Well he is, what with all nine of his wives/husbands being pregnant. Yes, he has a harem of nine lovers. Sound like too much? That's because it is.
While the original film had a clear target (the vacuousness of celebrity culture), Zoolander 2 is happy to just be goofy. There are moments when it looks like a skewering of millennials is about to unfold, but outside of a few admittedly clever moments, the skewer proves to be quite dull. Derek and Hansel are just not cool anymore, and while their loss of relevance is mined for a few solid laughs, the film feels just as out of touch as its characters. Take for example Benedict Cumberbatch's character, All. You've seen the bit in the trailers. All is an androgynous model who engages in a quick dialogue with Derek and Hansel in which they tastelessly try to determine All's gender. The moment drew ire from critics who claimed it was transphobic. I don't necessarily see it as such a malevolent lampooning, but a comedic rule of thumb is that if you're going to be edgy, you had better be funny. Unfortunately, All's single scene is not funny at ... all.
Regardless of the occasionally tone deaf sense of humor, there are plenty of laughs to be had. Every single performer gives an appropriately big performance. Nobody is phoning it in at any point, it's just that there's not enough room for anyone to flex their comedic chops. The film is so inundated with characters, cameos, and tonally mismatched effects work, that a lot of the potential for humor is squashed under the weight of it all. There are bits that deserved to be fleshed out that are instead brushed past so we can get to the next gag. Simultaneously, the few bits that are allowed to breathe aren't really worth it. Silver lining: there is so much silliness being thrown at the wall that more than a few gags inevitably stick. As much as it sounds like I'm chugging along on the hate train, Zoolander 2 is undeniably funny. A few segments even touch brilliance, but mostly it's middle of the road.
There are two things in the film that I found unforgivable, however. First, ENOUGH WITH THE CAMEOS. In the original film the onslaught of celebrity faces was inspired, serving to fuel the satirical angle of the film. Not in Zoolander 2, though. Within the first 20 minutes I became so numb to the novelty of seeing famous people do marginally goofy things that the president could have appeared and I'd have barely given it thought. We get it, modern comedy filmmakers, you're all connected to each other and it's adorable. Now write a joke.
The other unforgivable element is the special effects. There is no reason why a film like this should have so much effects work. Yes, digitally putting Fred Armisen's head on a child's body sounds funny on paper (or maybe it doesn't), but I'd much rather see Armisen simply perform. Literally any adult could have their head pasted on a tiny body and it would be just as "funny". As a filmmaker with access to a world of comedic talent, why would Stiller hide it behind lame gags that were created in post-production? It undercuts the potential for so many great performances. Armisen isn't the only victim of this. The final sequence is so gaudy, so excessive in its use of CGI silliness, that any inclination to laugh was replaced with internal cries for it all to end.
All of this said, Zoolander 2 was a ton of fun to watch, and for fans of the original it will make a wonderful drunken Redbox selection. Even though the film squandered its potential by setting its sights much higher than they ever really needed to be, it was great to see Derek Zoolander back on the big screen.
Zoolander 2 opens in Philly theaters today.