Zoolander 2 Fails Utterly in Its Quest to Crack Tech Jokes
Zoolander 2 opens with a chase sequence. On the run from masked gunmen, the target—Justin Bieber—gets cornered and eventually shot down in a gratuitous bit of self-martyrdom. But before Biebs takes his final breath, he whips out his phone, takes one final selfie, and sends it out to his millions of Instagram followers.
It’s the first of many opportunities Zoolander 2 finds to rag on youth culture and technology. But unlike the original, which was an actually-funny satire of the pompous fashion industry circa 2001, the sequel is bafflingly unsavvy with its jokes about gadgets, social media, and even selfie sticks.
Zoo 2 introduces its familiar modeling duo with a montage of news footage. Derek Zoolander’s Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good was built out of faulty materials, and collapsed two days after opening, killing Zoolander’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor). After being declared an unfit parent to his son, Derek (Ben Stiller) retreats to the harsh blizzards of “Extreme North New Jersey.” Hansel (Owen Wilson), after being disfigured (for a model) in the collapse, lives in desert of the “Uncharted Malibu Territory.” Both models are drawn out of seclusion by Billy Zane, who delivers an invitation from designer Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) to appear in Rome for a fashion comeback. Once there, Interpol agent Melanie Valentina (Penelope Cruz) intercepts the models to assist with an investigation into why beautiful famous people are being killed.
When Zoolander opened in late September of 2001, it was neither a critical darling nor a box office hit, making back just enough to be considered a financial success. Roger Ebert was particularly hard on the film, basically coming out and saying its plot about garment industry heavies conspiring to assassinate the progressive Prime Minister of Malaysia was the reason America was hated by certain parts of the world. Writer/director Stiller apparently had that criticism in mind when crafting his sequel, as Zoolander 2 removes any shred of incisive commentary that first film had, and instead hopes that audiences want to see Derek and Hansel engage in a struggle with technology that springs not from being obvious lunkheads but from a fear of a younger, more connected generation.
In the first film, most of the jokes about tech either lampooned the one-upmanship of trendy design (Derek’s tiny cell phone), or models having no computer training (“The files are in the computer?”). But here, all the tech jokes are about how times have changed and left the once cutting-edge, award-winning models behind the curve. Billy Zane delivers physical Netflix DVDs to both Derek’s hideout and Hansel’s desert abode to underline the point that these guys are old. Fred Armisen, whose face has been digitally grafted onto a child’s head, plays an 11-year-old social media whiz working for a fashion designer who touts a hotel amenity known as “farm-to-table Wi-Fi.” He’s the one from the trailer who mocks Derek’s old microscopic phone, then takes a picture with his newer iPad-sized one.
Zoolander 2 would have been fine if it stuck to getting laughs by portraying Derek and Hansel as last year’s models in a next-generation world. But instead of just riding that theme, it takes a negative view of our modern tech and sets up our heroes’ old ways as the right ways. Derek uses a selfie stick while driving and causes an outrageous car crash. Hansel is constantly using a flip-phone during helpful reconnaissance. And once Will Ferrell’s iconic villain Jacobim Mugatu finally reappears, one of his first acts is to shout, “Do you know who I am?” at the helpless and loathsome hipster designer played by Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney. At every juncture, Zoolander 2 attempts to make the emergence and dominance of new technology an alienating and oppressive force, not just to the hapless models, but to the audience as well.
The great irony is that the original Zooander has benefitted significantly from getting spliced up into easily digestible comedy bits for younger generations to encounter on YouTube. And that makes sense for a film based on a character Stiller created for VH1 Fashion Awards skits in the mid-1990s. Taken as a feature, the 2001 comedy has little narrative momentum as it moves from sketch to sketch. But almost every memorable scene—the fashion awards, Orange Mocha Frappachinos, the Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good, brainwashing to “Relax,” the Walk-Off—can be shared on its own and appreciated for its ridiculousness and satirical bite.
In contrast, Zoolander 2 has precious few moments that will inspire sharing—only Will Ferrell’s gleeful return and Kristen Wiig’s Donatella Versace-meets-Arianna Huffington accent come to mind. Really there hasn’t been a comedy sequel this forgettable since Anchorman 2.
A true spiritual sequel would have latched onto the tone of the first film, using Derek and Hansel to satirize modeling’s rigorous and narrow beauty standards in a changing world. But Zoolander 2 isn’t that. It makes crass jokes about thin people bemoaning fat children. It employs Penelope Cruz solely for the purpose of gawking at her beauty and making her all but throw herself at Derek (while his dead wife’s ghost urges him to move on). And its condescending view of younger generations reveals a deeper insecurity over not keeping up.
People embraced Zoolander because it saw everything worth mocking in the fashion establishment and took risks to be wild and incisive. Zoolander 2 doesn’t understand the new paradigm, so instead of figuring out how to make jokes about technology, it just mocks everything out of fear.