Zoolander 2 (2016)

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

The saga of male supermodel and Blue Steel creator Derek Zoolander began two decades ago in a sketch for the VH1 Fashion Awards. Star, director, and co-writer Ben Stiller leveraged the popularity of the character into a 2001 cult comedy that had the misfortune to open not long after the 9/11 attacks, when the world had not yet discovered that it was, in fact, perfectly all right to laugh at silly bullshit like Stiller’s instantly iconic send-up of the fashion industry.

Zoolander garnered mixed reviews (as well as an utterly scathing pan from Roger Ebert, who reviled it on moral as well as artistic grounds) and did okay at the box-office, but after its theatrical run ended something unexpected happened. Zoolander didn’t go anywhere. People didn’t stop watching it. They didn’t stop talking about it, and unfortunately they didn’t stop quoting it either, or offering their own takes on Derek’s signature looks. This trifle became a movie that people were happy to revisit regularly and share with their friends. Instead of diminishing with time, Zoolander only seems to have grown bigger as the years progressed, worming its way unexpectedly into the annals of pop culture.

A sizable group of cultists adored Derek Zoolander to the point where they were frustrated that the gods of cinema only deigned to make a single major motion picture based on a long-ago VH1 Fashion Awards sketch. These Zoolander zealots cried out for a sequel to a movie no one needed in the first place, that was intermittently funny but wildly uneven and awfully thin gruel for even a silly throwaway comedy.

Yet Zoolander 2 happened all the same, a decade and a half after the original. The press onslaught before its release date was ubiquitous and oppressive, almost to the point where the film just seems to represent one component of the Zoolander roll-out, and not a particularly important one at that. The reviews were scathing. The paltry domestic and worldwide box-office take illustrated that it was, surprisingly, possible for a modestly budgeted, eagerly anticipated movie with a seemingly built-in audience that stars Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, and Penélope Cruz to lose money, if it’s awful enough.

The Zoolander movies are less satires of fame and celebrity than celebrations, like a sequel-opening cameo from Justin Bieber that illustrates that the reviled pop star is on the joke enough to be one of 17 million famous people participating in Ben Stiller’s merry little dress-up party circle jerk. Zoolander 2 finds its protagonist in exile after a construction snafu killed his wife and a meltdown cost him custody of his chubby son. When a number of prominent pop stars turn up dead while seemingly sporting one of Derek Zoolander’s trademark expressions, he is roped back into action by mysterious operative Penélope Cruz (who has such a nothing role here it might as well have just gone to Christine Taylor) to help uncover the evildoers behind this rash of murders.

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Zoolander 2 has a great deal of plot, some of it involving Austin Powers-style international intrigue like the preceding film and some involving Derek Zoolander reconciling with his overweight son and rival-turned-ally Hansel. But the crucial thing to remember is that none of Zoolander 2’s plot matters. It doesn’t matter to the film, it doesn’t matter to the characters, and it sure doesn’t matter to the audience. We are not emotionally invested in Derek’s emotional journey. We will not weep copious tears if he falls short of complete self-actualization or is unable to reconcile his professional ambitions with his responsibilities as a single father.

No, the only real purpose of the film’s plot is to ensure that Zoolander is perpetually modeling his default expression of simian stupefaction near as many easily recognizable international landmarks and famous people as possible. Two movies in, Zoolander hasn’t found a way to expand upon its single joke that models are dumb and dumb is funny.

Stiller is among the four credited screenwriters, including his Tropic Thunder co-writer Justin Theroux. I imagine that if Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson (who have screenwriting credits on movies like Anchorman and The Royal Tenenbaums, in addition to being famously gifted, quick-witted improvisers) were to ad-lib, Stiller wouldn’t angrily call “Cut!” and, through gritted teeth, demand that they perform the scene exactly as written. So there are a handful of promising ideas in a movie that, to its detriment, is excessive in ways that are exhausting rather than exciting. Kyle Mooney of Saturday Night Live, for example, plays a hotshot designer named Don Atari who embodies the painfully ironic Williamsburg-honed snark-as-ethos to the point where the highest, and only, praise he can give anything is that it’s so terrible and awful and the worst that it’s awesome and hilarious and the best. But there is nothing more to the character than that one note: It’s a snarky take on snark.

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A subplot involving Hansel’s tumultuous ongoing romantic and emotional relationship with an entire orgy is goofy in an ingratiatingly Anchorman absurdist fashion except that it’s never funny. The presence of Kiefer Sutherland as one of the orgy participants Hansel can’t quite figure out or let go of somehow makes the whole bit much worse.

Zoolander 2 relies heavily and lazily upon the cheap buzz of familiarity that comes with celebrity. Perhaps it was kick-started into existence by Stiller going to a lot of cocktail parties where a lot of intimidatingly famous people gushed about how much they loved Zoolander and what an incredible honor it would be to contribute a cameo to the sequel. This leads to a bloated, badly paced, shapeless mess with no overarching satirical vision, which lives but mostly dies on the strength of jokes that run the gamut from vaguely promising to inexplicably awful. No sequence better illustrates the project’s dispiriting wrong-headedness than an infamous bit involving Derek and Hansel working themselves into a tizzy trying to ascertain the gender of All, an androgynous and malevolent supermodel played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

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Trans activists accused the film of transphobia before its release, of making a non-heteronormative individual who falls outside society’s accepted gender categories seem like an aberration. Defenders of Stiller’s confused comedy insisted that the wave of outrage greeting this scene and this character were misguided, and that the scene’s “humor” comes from these insecure white men’s discomfort upon being confronted with something they do not understand. It’s such a terribly constructed scene that it’s hard to even figure out what the joke is, let alone derive any pleasure from it. The worlds of gender, sexuality, masculinity, and fashion have changed tremendously since Zoolander’s release; a sequel with ambition might have used this opportunity to explore the fragility of masculinity in modern life instead of deriving its humor from a pair of dolts referring to a penis as a “hot dog” and a vagina as a “bun.”

In the next scene, All is soaring above Hansel and Derek on a fashion show runway, looking for all the world like an evil glam-rock witch, and whipping them with mad glee, before Hansel concludes (rimshot please!) that All definitely has a penis. And that is funny to the film for some reason. God only knows what attracted to Cumberbatch to a character who’s essentially Pat from Saturday Night Live re-conceived as some weird James Franco ambiguously offensive performance art stunt. But in addition to Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor famous for having the world’s most British name, as well as the aforementioned Bieber, Sutherland, and Cruz, the film also includes:

  • Milla Jovovich
  • Katy Perry
  • Demi Lovato
  • Tommy Hilfiger
  • Marc Jacobs
  • Naomi Campbell
  • Ariana Grande
  • John Malkovich
  • Billy Zane
  • Skrillex
  • Anna Wintour
  • MC Hammer
  • A$AP Rocky

And many more. Reading that partial list of celebrities overjoyed to be in Zoolander 2 provides just as much dubious pleasure as watching them mug for the camera, but it does save you an awful lot of time. Despite its obsession with Warholian celebrity, Zoolander 2 makes for a terrible celebrity cameo delivery system, including superstar science guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson, whose appearance late in the film feels weirdly predictable and inevitable (he also appeared in Batman V Superman a month after Zoolander 2).

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Zoolander 2 is self-satisfied to an Entourage degree. Like Entourage, it is shameless about shoving as many famous faces on screen as possible under the flimsiest of premises. A laughless, joyless, sluggish cameo from, say, Sting, begins with the film patting itself on the back for being able to nab a big pop star like Sting. Then it flatters the audience for recognizing the world-famous pop star before further flattering them with references to Sting’s work and life. Then the process starts again with the next celebrity cameo.

Zoolander 2 takes great pains to ensure that everyone is in on the joke, and that the joke is big, broad, and dumb enough for even the Derek Zoolanders of the world to get it. Stiller is cynical enough to know that the jokes that will get the biggest laughs are jokes recycled from the first film. Zoolander 2 treats its predecessor with the kind of reverence Brian DePalma extends to his Hitchcock homages. It’s not alone in finding Zoolander far funnier than it actually is, and in wanting to not just borrow but flat-out steal its comic mojo, and many of its signature gags as well.

There’s something quietly heartbreaking about the film’s desperate eagerness to please, its sweat-laden conviction that if it only gives audiences what they want, then it will be not only enjoyed, but adored, coupled with how little the movie does to win laughs or affection. It’s less a sequel to Zoolander than an extended victory lap so wobbly and unearned that it calls into question whether the original was even a victory in the first place.

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Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure