There’s Nothing Model About the Bloated, Buffoonish Zoolander 2

Ben Stiller plays Derek Zoolander and Penelope Cruz plays Valentina Valencia in Zoolander No. 2 from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Philippe Antonello/Paramount Pictures

How bad is Zoolander 2? It’s Batman and Robin bad. It’s so bad that it makes you feel sorry for the scores (literally) of celebrities who show up in cameos, even the ones (Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Susan Sarandon, Ariana Grande, Kimye ...) who actively resist your sympathy, whom you maybe want to see taken down a peg. The nice ones, meanwhile, should rethink their priorities. Chris Hayes, my man: Isn’t your integrity your calling card? [Update: It looked like Chris Hayes, but he says he wasn't in it. Go figure.] Neil deGrasse Tyson: Make sense of the cosmic anomaly of your presence. Jane Pauley: Don’t you of all people understand the difference between satire and overblown, painfully self-conscious camp?

It should be said that the 2001 original is also self-conscious camp — i.e., camp in which the campiness is itself the joke. The principals — writer-director-star Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell — are heteros who get laughs by preening and mincing like queeny stereotypes. (Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and Wilson’s Hansel are meant to be catnip to the ladies, which is supposed to defuse the homophobia.) The film’s other satirical object is the stupidity of models — what a reach. Stiller gets away with targeting low-hanging fruit because he understands chronic narcissism from the inside, and he can expertly reproduce the wounded pouts and “I’m too sexy for my clothes” attempts at mass seduction. Zoolander’s kissie-poo “blue steel” pose is a legitimate classic.

The sequel, though, is the work of someone so insecure that he thinks bigger is better and loses all perspective. The more stars Stiller can entice to be in his movie, the more impressed he thinks we’ll be. The film opens with some of those A-listers being assassinated by a super-secret organization. In theory, seeing Justin Bieber riddled with bullets ought to be a killer setpiece, a slam dunk, but the staging is so heavy-handed, it smothers the laughs. Bieber, meanwhile, practically winks at the remaining Beliebers, as if to say, “I’m not really dead. I’m just sending up my image because I’m cool enough to laugh at myself. Take that, haters.”

The premise of Zoolander 2 is that supermodel Derek lost his wife in the collapse of his stupidly named, ill-built literary institute. His friend Hansel was disfigured. His son was taken away from him. Now he’s in hiding in a snowbound cabin in “extreme northern New Jersey” (the one-half of the one-and-a-half jokes in the movie that made me laugh). He and Hansel — who has impregnated a harem that includes a sumo wrestler, a little person, and a famous TV action star — are drafted to appear in a high-profile fashion show in Rome. After being cruelly humiliated, they’re enlisted by a failed swimsuit model (Penélope Cruz) who’s now an agent for Interpol’s “global fashion division.” She and her colleagues need to learn the meaning of a face tweeted by those star victims at the moment of their deaths — a face that bears a distinct resemblance to one that Zoolander made famous. The origin might well go back to the dawn of humankind.

The above suggests the biggest problem: Zoolander 2 isn’t grounded enough to be funny. It’s all canted-angle close-ups and hyperbolic action-movie gags and truncheonlike timing — just like Batman and Robin, actually. Stiller doesn’t let anything breathe; he seems to think that every instance of Zoolander’s dimness, every malapropism, is going to bring the house down. (Derek tells Hansel, “I’m a total laughingstick,” and you wonder why no one was brave enough to suggest that Stiller come up with something better. Actually, why don’t you, in the comments below, and I’ll pick a winner next week. Let me start: “I’m a total chicken stock.” You can top that!)

Benedict Cumberbatch makes a tantalizing, fluttery entrance as an eyebrowless androgyne who barely blinks, and he wields a whip like a psychotic geisha. But he doesn’t get any good lines. He’s a “tranny” joke — and I use that offensive term because that’s the level on which he functions. I’ve also never seen Will Ferrell so flailingly lame, though, to be fair, he does have the lone gag that made me laugh out loud, which involves a pair of Mission: Impossible–like masks.

Young actor Cyrus Arnold plays Derek Zoolander Jr., whom his father longs to see once more. The kid turns out to be bookish and ungainly. Derek Sr. sees him reading I Am Malala and refers to the author as “Malalalala.” I’m not a very p.c. person and think pretty much anything is fair game if it’s funny. And I realize that the joke here is that Zoolander is so shallow that he can’t begin to recognize his son’s moral seriousness. But if you’re trying to get a laugh out of mispronouncing the name of a Pakistani teenage girl shot in the face while boarding a school bus, you need to come up with something way, way, way better. No, don’t suggest alternatives in the comments section. Let’s have more sense than Stiller and let this one go.