Zoolander 2 review: “as weak as a starving supermodel”

Ben Stiller's king of the catwalk takes a mighty tumble with this sequel, despite all the help from his celebrity friends

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★★

Killing Justin Bieber in scene one may ingratiate movie-goers who are old enough to remember the first Zoolander, but sadly, the rest of this sequel will also have fans of the 2001 film mourning the ruin of Ben Stiller’s original poufy-haired poseur. 

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Fifteen years on, Stiller again directs himself as catwalk star Derek Zoolander, joined by his old partner in fashion crime, Hansel (Owen Wilson), who are now media outcasts – and it’s no wonder when the jokes are as weak as a starving supermodel.

We find Zoolander bearded and holed-up in the frozen peaks of “extreme north New Jersey” after his Centre For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too (established at the end of the first film) burns down, killing his wife (real-life spouse Christine Taylor) and leaving Hansel with a horrible facial disfigurement (ie a teeny-tiny scar). He is overwhelmed with guilt, which is fair enough given that he built the centre with the same materials as the architectural model.

An overly complicated, underworked plot later brushes this crime under the rug, and there are other attempts to cover the cracks, like a cast stuffed full to bursting point with cameos – always a reliable source of cheap laughs. It’s none other than Billy Zane, playing himself, who draws Zoolander and Hansel out of hiding (the latter, from a life of orgies in the desert) to feature in a big comeback show in Rome. 

The event is to be staged by the current First Lady of Fashion, Alexanya Atoz, a sort of satin-wrapped, sour-faced gargoyle, sportingly played beneath inches of latex by Kristen Wiig. Wiig’s unintelligible multi-ethnic accent is good for a few laughs, but like the character, it’s overdone and gets old quickly. 

Not to be discouraged by that, Kyle Mooney, playing Atoz’s head designer Don Atari, also has a funny way of talking, being too hip for consonants “n’all that y’all”. Cue Zoolander and Hansel doing their nonplussed pouty faces. It’s a wonder they can keep up with the plot, which also has Penélope Cruz pouting equally hard as a swimsuit model-turned-Interpol agent investigating Bieber’s death – the latest in a string of pop-star murders – and enlisting Zoolander’s help (why wouldn’t you?) in return for tracking down his son (Cyrus Arnold) who was taken by social services.

Inevitably, Zoolander has lessons to learn about caring for someone other than himself, and there’s a chuckle (or two…) to be had when a trip for ice cream results in selfie-induced injuries, otherwise there isn’t much of a payoff to this storyline. The writers’ short attention span (that’s Stiller and his usual collaborators) later turns to Zoolander’s old nemesis Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who struts into frame very late in the day after a long spell in fashion prison. The manic energy that Ferrell brings is a welcome shot in the arm as the pace flags, but he feels uncomfortably shoehorned into the movie.

The origins of the Fountain of Youth are worked into the plot, along with various other strands, leading to a showdown of couture icons. And the cameos just keep on coming, including a startling, brow-less turn by Benedict Cumberbatch as androgynous model, All. In a comic universe as outlandish as this one, daft plotting shouldn’t matter, but when it undermines what was funny about the original premise, then it’s fatal.

With the first film, Stiller delivered an inspired blend of spy spoof and goofy fashion satire; here, the grand intrigues overshadow the characters, and when there are so few laughs – just a lot of rubber lips and random weirdness to substitute – it only makes the yawning gaps in logic harder to bear. 

Zoolander used to have that cool look of “Blue Steel”, but like a scene where Mugatu disguises himself as our hero, it’s as if he’s been badly reconstituted out of mouldy papier-mâché.

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Zoolander 2 is on general release in cinemas