Ben Stiller’s Zoolander 2 is less a waste of time than it is an annihilation of it. The film fades from memory almost immediately after you walk out of the theater, leaving a hazy, two-hour gap in one’s mind that can only be explained by the ticket stub in your hand. At times, it suggests a deliberate experiment by a studio to test the limits of the general public’s nostalgia.
In the film, models Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) come out of self-imposed retirement and discover that the fashion world has left them behind, and they’re roundly mocked for their age and outdated style. Yet as much as it knocks its protagonists’ age, Zoolander 2 is frequently guilty of the same obsolescence it accuses the characters of embodying. Dialogue, as in the first film, primarily consists of Derek and Hansel locked in Sisyphean struggles to comprehend even the most basic concepts, speaking the same sentence back and forth in mutual bewilderment, suggesting a “Who’s on first?” routine that never moved past the initial question.
Shortly after the events of the first film, Derek lost his wife (Christine Taylor) in a construction accident and his son (Cyrus Arnold) to child services, and when he decides to get Derek Jr. back, he also stumbles onnto an elaborate revenge scheme that, among other things, puts the boy in danger of ritual sacrifice. Throughout, the darkness of this already convoluted narrative clashes dissonantly with the fundamentally light tone of the character humor. In the film’s cold open, for example, Justin Bieber is depicted being brutally machine-gunned and drawing air through his perforated lungs just long enough to take one last selfie. Insipid and tonally incongruous, the scene is emblematic of a film that condescends to the very demographic it seeks to attract with a barrage of celebrity cameos.
The desperation with which the script clings to a particular line because of its potential to amuse audiences has the unintended effect of blunting the effect of the few punchlines that stick. The actors, too, seem aggrieved under the pressure of this dull show of repetition. Kyle Mooney stands out as Don Atari, an aggressively ironic millennial designer, but he’s never allowed to establish a significant rapport with the film’s leads; the script, in the end, merely uses him to shuttle Derek and Hansel to a terrible fashion show that represents the epitome of Zoolander 2’s unique mix of glib pandering (Skrillex DJs the event) and insult (the casual transphobia that underscores Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of a nonbinary model as invasive and alien).
Only Will Ferrell, who returns as villainous designer Jacobim Mugatu, emerges unscathed. Where Stiller uses distanced smarm to communicate his superiority over his character, Ferrell picks at one note and plays it so relentlessly that the part, which feels as if it’s been constructed from outtakes from the first film, becomes vibrant and multivalent. His sheer force of will might have elevated Penélope Cruz’s role as a member of the Interpol global fashion police above a glib talking point. Her Valentina exists only to lament that she could never be a runway model because her breasts are too large. That such a beautiful woman doesn’t fit the industry’s narrow guidelines of body type nearly opens the door to some kind of satire, but this insight’s payoff is simply the throbbing erections of the two leads, which in and of itself feels like a metaphor for the impetus of this project.