It’s fitting enough that Zoolander 2 finds Ben Stiller back to satirise the fashion industry’s vainest excesses, because it’s difficult to imagine any film this year will be a more transparent vanity project for all involved.
15 years after the cult success of clueless modelling comedy Zoolander, Stiller is back as the eponymous fashion icon, and both Stiller and his character seem desperate to recapture the old energy. Years after foiling an assassination plot against the Malaysian Prime Minister, we find Zoolander in self-imposed exile to deepest, darkest New Jersey, overcome with guilt for a number of tragedies that have transpired since.
Inevitably he’s dragged into another elaborate scheme, joined by the returning Owen Wilson as fellow male model Hansel, and newcomer Penélope Cruz as Valentina – agent of the Fashion Police. They’re up against Kristen Wiig’s incomprehensible fashion mogul Alexanya Atoz and Will Ferrell’s Mugatu, once again astonishingly coiffed and apoplectically angry.
It’s the villains that steal the show here, Wiig and Ferrell dominating every scene they’re in. Wiig’s Atoz is the sort of one-note character whose single joke is ridiculously compelling enough to last the entire film, as she laboriously over-pronounces every word she can get her lips around, stuffing syllables in an accent that defies categorisation.
When compared to their villainous counterparts, Stiller, Wilson and Cruz are just going through the motions. Stiller’s impossibly-dumb schtick is still likeable enough at times, but apparently none of the script’s four writers could find it in themselves to give him any actual jokes to work with.
Instead, for the most part the film trades on rehashes of the first film’s most quoted lines for its comedy, the script frequently straining at the seams to fit them in – not least the egregious shoehorning of ‘That Hansel’s so hot right now.’
Even worse are the interminable celebrity cameos. The first time around, these were a frequent source of delight and surprise – who can forget David Bowie’s appearance as a walk-off judge? This time around, the joke is more often: ‘Look, they’re famous!’ We see Justin Bieber murdered, Benedict Cumberbatch as an androgynous model (just as offensive as it looked in the trailers, in case you’re wondering) and Anna Wintour lead a dark ritual, but none of it can even elicit a chuckle. Sadder still are the insistent attempts to name almost every cameo out loud, just to make sure no-one in the audience misses out on the famous person.
Zoolander was crude and juvenile, but it recognised something in fashion worth critiquing, teasing and satirising. The best Zoolander 2 can manage is to namedrop Instagram and joke about how quickly trends move these days – especially ironic for a film that already manages to feel a year or two out of date. Whatever satirical bite the first film managed is nowhere to be found, leaving little behind but toilet humour and Ariana Grande in a gimp suit.
There are moments that work, of course. Mugatu’s sterling escape from prison almost makes up for the execrable five minutes that follow it, and Ferrell and Wiig’s scenes hint at a much better film focussed on the two scheming lunatics, rather than Stiller’s preening idiot. But for the most part, Zoolander 2 is flat, drab, uninspired, and – worst of all – frequently just plain dull.
Words by Dominic Preston