Zoolander 2 is an absurdist pageant of fatuity, 102 minutes of self-aware GIFs waiting to happen. And it's pretty damn funny.
The original Zoolander — also directed by and starring Ben Stiller — was released a mere fortnight after September 11, 2001: unfortunate timing for a satire about a rivalry between two preening male models. Stiller's Derek Zoolander character — a none-too-bright fellow with a repertoire of killer poses — had made his debut in a short aired at the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards. The film's parody was rooted in the excesses of the preceding decade, when oxymoronic phrases like "heroin chic" were coined and superstar models paraded down catwalks in ludicrously unwearable garb.
September 11th changed all that. In the ensuing years, though, Zoolander gathered a following on DVD, and its director and stars prospered in other ventures. So now we have Zoolander 2, in which middle-aged Derek and his erstwhile rival, Hansel (Owen Wilson), confront the realities of life in the new millennium.
A hasty prologue unknits the ending of the first film, in which Zoolander was happily wed. We meet him as a recluse — or, as he puts it in the first of many, many malapropisms, a "hermit-crab."
But someone has been killing the world's biggest pop stars, and glamorous international cop Valentina Valencia (Penélope Cruz) has found a connection to the has-been model. So Derek and Hansel head to Rome, where they will face a showdown with an old adversary, many tearful reveals and reunions, and, far more importantly, the realization that they are no longer cool.
The new face of "cool" is represented by millennial fashion maven Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), who speaks a lingo of ironic disdain so byzantine that it mystifies the viewer along with Derek and Hansel. It's a good example of the largely verbal comedy that the writers (Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg) bring to the film. The jokes that don't hinge on the mockery of Hollywood or fashion-industry tropes target an array of communication fails, all enabled by narcissism. The prime offender, of course, is the title character, from his oblivious mispronunciation of He Named Me Malala ("Mala-la-la!" he trills) to his wishful misreading of the word "lame" (when applied to him) as "lamé."
One warning: If you don't find Stiller's contorted, breathy delivery of such lines funny, you won't find the film funny, either. A lot rides on the audience's affection for Derek and Hansel's peculiar brand of effete cluelessness.
A second warning: If a movie could overdose on celebrity cameos, Zoolander 2 would be comatose. From its first scene, the film is a gallery of famous faces — some old and some young, some playing to type and some against it. It's the cinematic equivalent of a sassy gossip blog post studded with the aforementioned GIFs, or an awards-show sketch that enlists the stars in the audience. And that seems to be the point — or rather, the inherent pointlessness of an image- and status-obsessed culture, which the movie riffs on at every opportunity.
For those who don't particularly enjoy the visual absurdities of high fashion, or the detailed dissection of vapidity, Zoolander 2 is probably a miss. The film offers no new satirical insights into this region of idiocracy, just a colorful romp through it.
But this isn't one of those comedies marred by long stretches of dead air, embarrassed-looking stars or a reliance on bodily function gags, either. Everyone involved seems to be having a lot of intensely stupid fun — and, if you were Don Atari, that might be your highest expression of postmodern praise.