Yes, this is my review of Zoolander 2. Bear with me.

This week, Kanye West invited fans to Madison Square Garden for an over-the-top party celebrating his new album, The Life of Pablo, and launch “Yeezy Season 3,” his new wave of fashion. There, he teased the over-dressed and adoring crowd with tracks — not live performances, just tracks — while the spotlight fell on a despondent fashion show populated by bored models who had been directed to hold their poses for the duration. Somewhere in the crowd, Kim Kardashian West, dressed in so much feathery whiteness that even Bjork must have been impressed, moved about like some kind of intergalactic queen, or like a supporting character from a deleted scene of The Fifth Element.

After that, with his fans clamoring to get the album for themselves, West proceeded to delay the record’s actual release so he could revise the music. With his anxious fans giving him all the attention he could dream of, he began tweeting out a stream of boasts and claims about himself, comparing himself to the Apostle Paul, boasting about how he’s rich enough to buy his family houses and furs and anything they want, and then painting himself as a charitable servant of humankind. Then he referred to himself in the third person, saying, “He is the greatest living artist and greatest artist of all time.” By contrast, even Donald Trump’s ego seemed suddenly modest. Nobody seemed concerned about the fact that West  had, earlier this week, pronounced Bill Cosby innocent — or, rather, “INNOCENT!!!!!!!” — of the many sex-crime accusations made against him.

While all of this unfolded, Zoolander 2 opened.

Left to right: Owen Wilson plays Hansel, Ben Stiller plays Derek Zoolander and Penelope Cruz plays Valentina Valencia in Zoolander 2 from Paramount Pictures.
Left to right: Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Penelope Cruz play three of about a thousand characters in Zoolander 2 from Paramount Pictures.

Zoolander 2 is a sequel to Ben Stiller’s 15-year-old satire that gave the world a grand occasion to laugh at the excesses, the narcissism, and the inanity of that pop culture place where fashion trends and commercial music intersect. The original film enthusiastically lampooned pop culture’s lavishly dressed posers as mentally deficient egomaniacs whose charitable acts are to establish “centers for kids who can’t read good” even though they wouldn’t be caught dead trying (and failing) to read on their own. Focusing on two supermodel enemies turned allies, Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson), it was like a fashion version of Dumb and Dumber, but crafted by far more intelligent filmmakers. Just as Anchorman needed only to slightly exaggerate the reality of egomaniacal-anchorman-as-celebrity culture in order to make us recognize this present Idiocracy, Zoolander was funny because it was true.

What’s troubling is that the original seems tame now.

The realities of pop culture hero-worship and fashion-world indulgence have become so much more extreme that they’ve become almost impossible to lampoon. For any new Zoolander movie to have teeth, it would have to send up not only the models, the designers, and the fashion shows themselves, but also what goes on behind the scenes: the exploitation, the crime, the greed, and the materialistic and covetous public who worship these egomaniacal (and naked) emperors.

Instead, Zoolander 2 seems to have been committee-designed for fan service. It only looks backward, celebrating the risks it took last time, and then hitting those same buttons faster and harder. Zoolander 2 feels Zoo-longer, as if it comes from the same factory that pumped out a bloated, disappointing Anchorman 2. There are too many plotlines. There are too many characters. There are too many sequel clichés.

Justin Bieber takes a hard fall in Zoolander 2.
Justin Bieber takes a hard fall, and a selfie, in Zoolander 2.

And there are way, way, way too many cameos. The closing credits name-check so many celebrities and famous fashionistas that I think I only recognized half of them during the movie. Some, like Willie Nelson and Neil Degrasse Tyson, don’t convince me that the filmmakers asked them to be in the movie at all; rather, it seems like this must have been a case where the committee said “Who’s cool? Let’s get ’em!”, or else certain celebs applied enough pressure to be promised a spot in a sequel to their favorite comedy.

It’s kind of amazing that so many talented imaginations could not come up with something more substantial than this in the 15 years since the original.

As Owen Wilson’s Hansel says, “Let’s talk about what worked.” What worked? Just enough that I can say I’m glad I saw it, but not enough that I recommend anybody pay the full ticket price.

Kristen Wiig plays Alexanya Atoz in Zoolander 2... and if you have trouble pronouncing that name, wait until you hear her try it.
Kristen Wiig plays Alexanya Atoz in Zoolander 2… and if you have trouble pronouncing that name, wait until you hear her try it.

For all of the rehashes, in-jokes, and pointless guest appearances, Zoolander 2 gets something right every few minutes — just enough to stay entertaining. As with Anchorman 2, the strongest stuff shows up in scenes that look like they were achieved through a dozen improvised takes. (I look forward to the outtakes.) I laughed. A lot. Especially in the first half, as we learn what happened to the main characters immediately following the previous film.

Most of the comedy credit for that goes to women of the cast. Kristen Wiig, unrecognizable under puffy makeup, speaks as if someone taught her all the wrong vowels early in childhood, and I just wanted the whole film to be about her. Penelope Cruz, who dominates any moment she’s onscreen, gives as much to this performance as she does to arthouse cinema. Christine Taylor… well, her appearance is one of the film’s best — and creepiest — ideas.

Only a couple of the male actors make the most of their time in this overcrowded spectacle: Will Ferrell revives Mugatu as if he’s spent time playing this nightmare clown every day for the last 15 years (but I doubt anybody’s like to go around quoting any of his lines this time around), and — no spoilers — the actor who plays himself as a member of Hansel’s family (no, entourage!) (no, orgy!)… that guy is so amazing that he almost makes you care about his absurd subplot.

Penelope Cruz — the movie's MVP — makes the most of every scene she's in as Interpol's Fashion Crime investigator Valentina Valencia.
Penelope Cruz — the movie’s MVP — makes the most of every scene she’s in as Interpol’s Fashion Crime investigator Valentina Valencia.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Zoolander 2 is our hero himself. Ben Stiller walks through this as if he’s already resigned himself to a failure. In the first film, Derek had a disability — he couldn’t turn left. Here, he can’t seem to move in any new directions at all; the script gives him little more to do than connect the plot’s dots on a familiar circuit: a fall from fame, a second chance, and a superhero showdown, punctuated by a few uninspired references to favorite moments from the original. Add to that a half-baked story about him trying to be a good father to his indignant son (Cyrus Arnold, the only sympathetic character); a revelation of a Temple of Doom-like satanic cult (such a predictable idea for a sequel); and typical small-world revelations of familial connections, and you’ve got a sequel made of all previous sequels.

I once attended a reunion with friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years. It was held at a flashy video arcade and bowling alley, where the crowds, the noise, the flashing lights, and the distractions made it hard to focus, to enjoy any worthwhile moments with old friends. Oh, there were hugs, there were laughs, there were stories told about the good times we used to have. But the attempt to make sure everybody was dazzled and entertained backfired so that it was, ultimately, wearying and frustrating — a non-reunion, where we had no chance to break any new ground.

That’s what Zoolander 2 feels like. It’s doomed to be one of those sequels that serves to make us think about what might have been.


But then again, maybe the time for Zoolander has passed. If you watch footage of that Yeezy Season 3 event — an exhibition of unparalleled self-indulgence, uninspired fashion, and ass-kissing hero worship — you realize the reality has become more outlandish and unhealthy than any satire could reach. (By the way, regarding Kanye: I have no doubt that there’s some great music in there somewhere. After all, once upon a time, Kanye West did seem to be serving the music instead of building a self-glorifying empire. But any quest to focus on his recordings in the midst of his own self-hype is like an attempt to appreciate the music playing from ceiling speakers in a crowded shopping mall.)

There’s too much talent on display in Zoolander 2 to write this off as a waste of time. Kristen Wiig can’t not be funny. And Penelope Cruz is such a blessing to the big screen that I’d follow her right out of this movie and into any other story she chose. But there’s just as much here to test our patience as there is to reward it. At one point, a prankster labels Hansel as “lame,” and Derek reads it aloud as “lamé.” Similarly, the filmmakers seem confused as to how much of this is satirizing a foolish fashion-world and how much is just, well, lame.