Silver Screen: Zoolander II *1/2
In comedy, bigger isn’t always better. In fact, it’s usually worse.
Everything from an Oscar Wilde bon mot to a good old-fashioned Three Stooges eye-gouge operates at a personal level. Intimacy is essential. Jokes aren’t beholden to economies of scale. Seeing Ted Cruz get hit in the nuts with a croquet mallet will provoke just as big a laugh as some elaborately rendered computer-generated imagery gag— bigger, probably— and all it costs you is a croquet mallet and Ted Cruz’s trust.
For most of his career, Ben Stiller has deftly managed these economies of scale. As an actor, Stiller keeps his career running on parallel tracks. He balanced small, odd, wonderful movies like Flirting with Disaster and The Zero Effect with family friendly spectacle like the Night at the Museum series.
As a director, Stiller has challenged himself with increasingly, even improbably large-scale efforts. It’s not always widely appreciated. He followed the chatty Reality Bites with The Cable Guy, a funny, unsettling, ambitious comedy... that flopped. Half a decade later he followed that up with Zoolander, an even more outlandish cult classic... that also flopped.
Stiller finally hit paydirt with Tropic Thunder, a movie that made fantastic use of its bigness. It was, in many ways, a parody of bigness, skewering the grandiosity of actors, directors, and producers while sneakily participating in this same grandiosity.
Stiller is exceptionally talented, but even a good gambler can’t keep beating the odds. His more recent efforts as a producer and director have shown an unsettling merging of Stiller the artiste and Stiller the blockbuster ham. The Watch, which he produced, and the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which he directed, both sagged under the weight of their size. To pay for these increasingly expensive experiments, he incorporated product placement— emphasis on the “incorporated.” The Watch played like the world’s worst extended Costco commercial, while Mitty felt like a passion project compromised by Faustian accountants.
But Zoolander II is the first genuinely bad movie Stiller has directed. He can’t control the ungainly plot, which sprawls in all directions (yet in no direction at all), while the title character is lost in a sea of product shots and superfluous celebrity cameos. It has a kind of wheezing desperation uncharacteristic of its cool, eminently capable creator.
Really, really ridiculously good-looking model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) has gone into hiding following an appropriately stupid accident that kills his wife and scars his fellow model pal Hansel (Owen Wilson). Derek goes into seclusion in “extreme northern New Jersey” while Hansel moves to a yurt in the desert where, now masked to hide his deformity, he engages in a protracted pan-sexual/pan-species orgy.
Derek and Hansel are summoned back to the world of modeling at the behest of Italian fashion icon Alexanya Atoz (a hilariously mush-mouthed Kristen Wiig). But it’s a setup— both to humiliate the aging hunks in front of the youth-starved fashion world, and also to enact some befuddling plot involving Derek’s long-lost son (Cyrus Arnold), an ancient prophecy, and a conspiracy of something like the Illuminati of haute couture.
It’s a simultaneously thin and overpadded excuse to get the characters back together, which would be a surmountable obstacle if more of the punchlines landed. But whereas Stiller was able have his blockbuster and mock in too in Tropic Thunder, here he seems uncertain whether he’s even in on the joke.
The running gag here is that Derek and Hansel are old and baffled by the forcefully inclusive yet relentlessly judgmental millennials. Trouble is, it’s not always clear when Stiller is pretending to be out of touch and when he actually is.
When Derek is confronted by a tiny hologram message from Atoz projected from a sleek black cube, he wonders aloud, “Is this one of those Box Trolls?” It’s a reference that would have been dated even before The Box Trolls was released. Ditto his utterance, after spectacularly crashing a sports car: “Hashtag oops.” Even his beloved product-placement shots, here represented by an Uber joke that’s also an advertisement for Uber, strain for relevance.
That Uber product placement might not have been necessary. There’s money to be saved here. Zoolander II is capriciously expensive. Sure, you can CGI Fred Armisen’s head onto the body of a child servant for a quick visual gag... or you could just have Fred Armisen be his regular size, or just cast a funny child servant. It’s not terribly amusing regardless, but it does look costly.
Perhaps I’m mistaken, but having seen the original Zoolander at least ten times, I was under the impression that the unstated joke of the whole movie is that Ben Stiller is not in fact a young, hot model. Pushing that notion to the surface and hammering it over and over again doesn’t add to the comedy.
Zoolander II isn’t so much hit-and-miss as it is hit and miss and miss and miss. Some of the jokes do land, thanks largely to Wilson, whose Hansel turns out to be a more relatable and appealing protagonist than Derek this time around. Just as the movie threatens to devolve into a total bore, Will Ferrell gives it an injection of energy as the nefarious Mugatu. But it’s not enough to save this bloated, misbegotten sequel, which never comes close to justifying itself either as a would-be blockbuster or a quirky flight of fancy. The original was a strange, excellent hybrid of the two. This one is neither.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.