Zoolander is a pretty clear example of the type of comedy in which the only aim is to generate as many laughs during its run time as mathematically possible. The story is just something to hang jokes on and tell the audience when the ride has started and stopped. If you’re not laughing during a movie like Zoolander, you probably aren’t getting much else from it. Zoolander 2 is the exact same way, so to say it lacks laughs means it’s pretty much a failure.
The big difference between Zoolander and Zoolander 2, besides the time difference, is the moving target it takes aim at. While I think Zoolander was even a bit too late when it came out in 2001, the target of most of its satire was the modeling and fashion industry. Zoolander 2 is still kind of targeting the modeling industry, but its focus is far broader this time. It seems to be generating most of its satire simply from celebrity culture and social networking, and because of that, the humor seems 1) too broad and easy, and 2) ultimately hurts any humor we derive from the characters. The only fashion industry “humor” (and I didn’t find it funny) was Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, who seems oddly mean-spirited for such an unfocused movie. Otherwise, fashion is just a stand-in for hipster jokes (although Kyle Mooney’s character is pretty funny) and celebrity cameos—lots and lots of cameos. Too many cameos, in fact, because just presenting a famous person in a random situation isn’t automatically funny, especially when it happens constantly, destroying any sense of surprise.
This movie goes a good hour before it gets any big laughs, almost all of it delivered by Will Ferrell. That’s right, the movie takes an hour to re-introduce Will Ferrell’s character, which is a huge mistake. New cast members Penelope Cruz and Kristin Wiig are clearly putting in a lot of effort and try a lot of things, but most of their jokes weren’t received well (both too good to be wasting their time in this). Ben Stiller is fine in the movie as Derek, although he seems less committed to the bit this time around. Owen Wilson seems disinterested, doesn’t have the same swagger, and he and Stiller lack that buddy comedy chemistry they once had, which leaves only Ferrell returning to the film to revitalize the franchise. Just as he was the most consistent laugh generator in the first movie (I believe this is considered his SNL break-out role), once he arrives, he delivers. He also adds something to the film that it needed.
As I mentioned above, this movie isn’t really a wacky satire anymore, because they don’t understand the industry they’re pointing at, but Ferrell’s scenes have a surreal, almost freaky and grotesque kind of humor that is, odd as it might seem, often funny and consistently interesting. More of that kind of humor seems like the direction Zoolander 2 needed to move towards. When Stiller, who once again wrote, directed, and produced the movie, goes for the surreal or absurd, he can keep audiences off balance just enough to generate some laughs, but when throwing out jokes about how stupid Zoolander is and unoriginal comments about the new age of celebrity, the jokes fall flat.
Perhaps the biggest problem, besides Stiller’s dependence on cameo comedy, is the rating. Both these films were rated PG-13, and both seem to suffer because of it. A comedy like this, targeting celebrity and fashion, seems like it needed to be a hard R, and the number of times you can feel Stiller holding back on a joke that should go further, the less likely you are to laugh. I’m not saying the only comedies we should be getting nowadays are R-rated (we certainly need more variety in the other direction, in fact), but the content should dictate the ratings and production scales. If Zoolander were made on a smaller scale and done as a hard R, I think the film would find a small but loyal audience, but a cult classic, which the original film became, shouldn’t have a sequel that tries to aim at having mass appeal. I can’t believe I’m saying this (considering my distaste for the film), but Deadpool’s production style would’ve suited this movie better—a small-scale production aimed at a specific, targeted audience.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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