Ben Stiller’s Zoolander 2 is an exceptionally bizarre and stupid affair, but it’s also one of the most self-aware comedies in recent memory. This 2016 picture features a screenplay by Stiller, John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, and Justin Theroux and lives in a world of glitz, glamour and ridiculousness. It’s as much a send-up of itself as it is a parody of the fashion industry.
It pays to remember that the first Zoolander movie opened just a few weeks after September 11 in 2001. It was essentially forgotten at the American box office, but it went on to enjoy significant cult status. Zoolander 2 didn’t face as daunting a task, but the modern thirst for comedy has certainly been “adjusted” over the years and silliness is far from a popular art form.
Once again, Stiller is male model Derek Zoolander. And once again, male model Derek Zoolander is a dumbass. He’s been living the life of a “hermit crab” after an accident caused the death of his wife and an injury to his son (Cyrus Arnold). When someone starts picking off beautiful people like Justin Bieber, Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz) seeks out Zoolander.
Hansel (Owen Wilson) is also pressed into service from his orgy lifestyle and reunites with Zoolander to assist Valencia and Fashion Interpol. Along the way, Zoolander and Hansel discover that the fashion world has changed and they are no longer hip. Sting informs them of a quest to obtain eternal youth and naturally the villainous Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is involved somehow.
Zoolander 2 is an absolutely absurd motion picture and it tiptoes across the line into surrealism, whether with the title character’s siege of malapropisms or the absolute outlandishness of a millennial-infused fashion industry or the way words are twisted into mazes right before our ears. That’s to say nothing of the over-the-top aesthetic of the picture, which is a wonder in and of itself.
Much has been made of the barrage of celebrity cameos in Zoolander 2, but Stiller’s self-awareness makes this part of the satire. He presents so many ostentatious, beautiful people that heads roll, with the likes of Ariana Grande showing up as “Latex BDSM” and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Katy Perry shouting it from the rooftops.
That’s to say nothing of one of the film’s strangest characters: Fred Armisen’s VIP. A 12-year-old boy with the actor’s head glued on top, VIP is an odd piece of work. He, like Kyle Mooney’s nonsensical Don Atari, plays up the film’s pointed take on youth culture and modern society, giving the audience something to look at that they can’t quite make sense of.
Zoolander 2 is a tough sell in these self-serious times (for evidence, check out “reviews” from places like Wired and witness the moaning about insults to tech culture) and that’s kind of cool. Hansel and Derek find themselves drifting in a world they can’t make sense of and their stupidity no longer helps them float about the ether.
The vapidity that made Zoolander and his Blue Steel such a punch above the baseline has become standard behaviour and even our heroes are perplexed by the warped lexicon. Kristen Wiig hilariously plays this up as Alexanya Atoz and her obsessions with a brand of “youth milk” are hysterical.
But like the first outing, Zoolander 2 is over-plotted. There’s too much “stuff” to work through on the way to the finish line and things seem overly conventional by the time the credits roll. Still, at least Stiller has the guts to leave his audience without an “in” – something Zoolander did to its own detriment with Matilda.
While the tendency to reject Zoolander 2 on the basis of its incongruity is reasonable and maybe even instinctive, a closer reading reveals many delights. This is a comedy that is so stupid in its tongue-in-cheek elegance that it nearly eats its own tail. It’s less quotable, less accessible and less agreeable than its predecessor. That it’s funny as hell in places only helps the ridiculous cause.