When making a sequel, you basically have two choices. First, you can take the popular characters that everybody loved and find something entirely new for them to do. Alternately, you can put the popular characters in the exact same situation that they were in before, and then focus on amplifying everything to make the new movie feel bigger than the first one. Zoolander 2 goes with this second option, and while the film isn’t without its moments, it doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the original movie.
If you haven’t seen the original Zoolander since you rented it at a Blockbuster Video in 2003, that’s ok. The film opens with a montage news sequence that gives you the basic details of the end of the first film, and gets you caught up on what has happened to our characters in the intervening years. The Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too completely collapsed two days after it opened, killing Derek’s wife (Christine Taylor) and disfiguring Hansel (Owen Wilson). Shortly thereafter, Derek (Ben Stiller) lost custody of his son. Since then, he’s been living the life of a recluse, until a request comes from Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig), the new top of the fashion world, asking Derek to come out of retirement.
At the same time Interpol’s high fashion division has been trying to track down the retired model because pop stars are being murdered around the world, and somehow they all seem to have a connection to Derek Zoolander.
While that only scratches the surface of the actual plot I’m going to leave it there, because the plot just isn’t important. The plot of Zoolander 2 jumps all over the place as needed to serve the jokes. There’s a subplot involving Derek’s son that’s so useless that even the movie stops to ask why it was there. Even as the film wraps up, you get the distinct impression that the script went through so many rewrites that parts of the previous versions were accidentally left in. All this would be ok if the jokes were good enough to hold up the entire movie. While I’m not going to pretend I didn’t laugh, they’re just not that good.
It’s clear that Ben Stiller as co-writer and director was afraid that if he strayed too far from what made the original film a cult hit, it would turn off fans who loved the brilliantly dumb humor. Unfortunately, as often happens, he over corrected. In the first film, Zoolander was the male model who was past his prime. Now, both Zoolander and Hansel suffer that fate. Did you like the celebrity cameos? You better, because Zoolander 2 has so many that if you blink too often, you’ll miss some. While a few of these cameos are truly funny, there are so many that you barely have time to enjoy the good ones. I found myself watching the film and waiting for the next cameo rather than paying attention to the characters on screen. The cameos in the first film felt organic, and they were special because you didn’t know they were coming. Here, there’s no question that “random background character #6” is going to be a celebrity, it’s just a question of who it will turn out to be.
All this isn’t to say that there isn’t fun to be had here. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are good together, and Zoolander 2 is no exception. I know I laughed and had a good time while I watched the film. The problem is that while I’d love to give you a great example of a joke I loved, I can’t think of a single one right now.
In the final analysis, Zoolander 2 feels less like its own movie and more like a Valentine’s Day gift to all of the fans that have kept the character popular for all these years. That’s not inherently a bad thing. If you are one of those fans then you’ll likely enjoy your time spent with these characters and everything they’ve crammed into the movie for you. Zoolander 2 succeeds at being more than the first film, but more isn’t necessarily better.