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Non-Review Review: Zoolander II (aka 2oolander)

Zoolander II arrives a decade and half after Ben Stiller’s original male model comedy, perhaps tapping into the same rich vein of nostalgia that led to the release of Jurassic World and the relaunched X-Files.

Zoolander is a fascinating (and beloved) film. It is (along with Anchorman) one of the defining comedies of the early twenty-first century, to the point that it (allegedly) counts among Terrence Malick’s favourite films. The film offers one of Ben Stiller’s most iconic performances and is filled with memetic lines and catchphrases. Tellingly, the teaser trailer to Zoolander II offered hints to its identity through visual shout-outs to some of the gags that had soaked into the popular imagination. It is a surprise that the sequel took this long to produce.

Model investigators...

Model investigators…

Zoolander sits awkwardly between the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. It was among the more high-profile films to digitally erase the World Trade Centre following the 9/11 attacks. Roger Ebert famously argued that Zoolander was one reason “why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world.” Mirroring its protagonist, the disconnect between the world in which the film was produced and the world in which is was released suggested an engaging innocence.

It is perhaps too much to expect Zoolander II to measure up to the original film, to offer that same surprising (and perhaps unintentional) innocence. Zoolander II is reasonably diverting, if solidly unspectacular. The film lacks the same sparkle that made the original such a hit, falling back a little bit too far on in-jokes and familiar characters without offering much new or exciting of its own.

A familiar ring to it...

A familiar ring to it…

Comedy sequels are tough. There is a very delicate balance to be struck. After all, most of the laughs inherent to a particular premise are skilfully mined in the first film; it is not uncommon for improvisation-heavy films to whittle down hours of gags to a more compelling ninety-minute slot. There is a sense that a truly successful comedy has already distilled most of the best gags in a core premise. More than that, a truly spectacular comedy has even left most of the mediocre and unsatisfying gags on the cutting room floor.

This was literalised with Wake Up, Ron Burgundy, an entire film stitched together from Anchorman out takes lacking the verve and wit that made the original such a cult favourite. This creates a problem for a comedy sequel. More than action movies or superhero films, production teams hoping to sequelise a comedy are put in a tough position. They can dig deeper into the original premise for jokes, an approach that promise fewer rewards; they can branch out in new directions, which risks alienating fans; or they can fall back on gags that worked the first time.

It's gotta be a Wiig...

It’s gotta be a Wiig…

The problem with many comedy sequels is that they opt for the familiar. Giving the audience what they want (or what they seem to want) is a defensible position, in both art and commerce. With sequels, emboldened by the success of the original film, the urge is always for more. With comedy sequels, driven by the memetic qualities of original gags, the urge is always for more of the same. It is telling that Zoolander II works so hard to get so many members of the original gang back together; Derek, Hansel, Mugatu, the “Evil DJ”, and even “Billy Zane.”

Early on, Zoolander II makes a few nods towards trying new things and investing in new characters. The movie’s status quo finds Derek removed from Matilda, the journalist who stole his heart in the first film. Early on, a new antagonist emerges named Alexanya Atoz, played by Kristen Wiig. The film’s new romantic lead is played by Penélope Cruz, and is quite literally a member of the “fashion police”, perhaps the most understated gag of the entire film. The movie stutters as it tries to find its groove, but there is a sense of novelty.

Cruzin' for adventure...

Cruzin’ for adventure…

Quickly, the film retreats from that novelty towards the familiar. Mugatu quickly emerges as a major player in the movie’s sinister plot. One major new character is quickly revealed to be a more familiar character wearing cunning disguise. Although David Bowie is entirely absent from the film, Zoolander II still finds time to slot in an iconic British pop star using the same “freeze-frame, print name, sample classic hit” technique that marked the Thin White Duke’s delightful cameo in the original movie.

To be fair, not all of this is bad. A large part of the appeal of Zoolander was its title character, the dim-witted male model who seemed blissfully ignorant of how the world is supposed to work. In some respects, Derek Zoolander helped to establish a template for twenty-first century comedic leading men; Zoolander might be an adult in terms of years, but he has the emotional intelligence (and self-awareness) of a child. It is quite easy to draw parallels between Derek Zoolander and an entire generation of Judd-Apatow-ian comedic protagonists.

Wholander?

Wholander?

Of course, what arguably made Derek Zoolander so special was the fact that his immaturity and selfishness was offset by a strange wide-eyed innocence. Zoolander was a character utterly ill-equipped to deal with the outside world, believing that a “petrol fight” was a good idea and completely oblivious to the film’s (admittedly ridiculous) exposition scenes. When Zoolander was oblivious to those around him, as so many contemporary comedic leads tend to be, there was no malice to it; there was a doe-eyed innocence.

Perhaps this innocence explains why Zoolander become such a cultural icon, particularly in the context of 9/11. Although Zoolander was released in September 2001, it had been produced long before the attacks. Although Roger Ebert might have had a point in singling out the film’s callous decision to play an assassination attempt upon the Malaysian Prime Minister as an example of cultural insensitivity, it was rooted in the same innocence that defined the character. In a way, Zoolander spoke to a larger sense of innocence and disconnect.

Gripping stuff...

Gripping stuff…

That said, it does seem a little awkward that the opening sequences of Zoolander II so consciously evoke the 9/11 attacks upon New York. During the obligatory “catching up with our leads” montage at the start of the film, it is revealed that Zoolander has been implicated in a horrific disaster that killed at least one person; there is some indication that there may have been other casualties. Cringingly, the sequence is edited in such a way as to conjure up images of the 9/11 attacks on New York.

It is difficult to tell what the film was trying to do with the sequence. Given the “2001” titlecard and the way that the montage segues directly into the shots of firefighters and rescue workers before explaining what exactly happened, it seems like an attempt at a misdirect gag. Perhaps it is intended as a commentary on the shattering of the innocence shared by Zoolander and the broader cultural consciousness. However, opening Zoolander II with a misdirect gag about 9/11 feels inappropriate and tasteless.

Prison changed him...

Prison changed him…

There are more than a few elements of Zoolander II that feel tasteless. The film wears its nineties nostalgia on its sleeve. There is a recurring sense that Derek and Hansel are relics of a simpler time, with the film suggesting that their continued befuddlement and confusion is a natural response to the increasingly bizarre world around them. However, these gags can feel a little forced and overworked. Most notably, Zoolander II recylces the original film’s gags about hipster poverty chic, but repackages them as “how times have changed” jokes that doesn’t feel earned.

Particularly striking is an extended gag about the androgynous modern model who goes by the name of “all.” Derek is incredibly weirded out by the ambiguously gendered “muse.” The film draws out a series of questions around the sexual organs of “all”, with the movie repeatedly cutting back to Derek’s confused (and incredibly uncomfortable) reaction. In the context of the nostalgia that permeates the rest of the film, it plays as downright reactionary; it would be easy to read the scene as transphobic, longing for an era when a model was clearly male or female.

Well (jump)suited to the task...

Well (jump)suited to the task…

To be fair to the film, there are moments at which it seems quite open-minded. In particular, one of the film’s best recurring gags carries over Hansel’s “mobile orgy” from the original film and plays it through a conventional relationship drama. The jokes come at the incongruity and absurdity of filtering a conventional heterosexual midlife crisis through a more pansexual perspective, with the film never seeming mean-spirited in its portrayal of Hansel’s liberal sexual lifestyle. (It also has the film’s best supporting role for a celebrity playing themselves.)

Indeed, some of the film’s best gags come from following the logic of the original film to its inevitable conclusion. Another recurring gag focuses on the climax of Zoolander; on Derek’s new look “magnum”, the look so forceful that it was able to stop a Mugatu-branded throwing star in mid-air. Two of the film’s best gags fixate upon Derek and Hansel attempting to recreate that iconic moment and to capture the magic of the first film. In some ways, these gags feel like wry self-commentary on the part of the production team.

Out of fashion...

Out of fashion…

Too much of Zoolander II is spent trying to emulate what came before. Old lines (and jokes) are repeated. The film feels over-stuffed with celebrity cameos, pushing past the charming absurdity of the original film to a point at which everything feels suffocated. The original Zoolander had a charming lightness that feels somewhat lost in the shuffle here; turning the original film into a fetish object burdens Zoolander II with too much weight. It strains under the expectations that it invites and reinforces.

There are moments at which Zoolander II works. It is fun to spend time with some of these characters again, and there are a few really good laughs to be had. However, too many of those laughs feel familiar and rote, as if the film is writing its own “eugoogley.”

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4 Responses

  1. Ebert!

    What a grumpy old git. You know, I have a collection of books by him, and half his reviews are mutterings about kids today and the decline of America. How we got the impression that he was so edgy and idiosyncratic is a mystery. ‘Suppose the critics who came before him were worse.

  2. From what youve said i expect it to be similar to the anchor man sequel, essentially an impossible task to equal or improve on the original.

  3. Great review.

    I think the genius of the character (at least in the first film) is that Derek Zoolander is essentially a Marilyn Monroe character who just happens to be played by Ben Stiller. Zoolander is, as you’ve suggested played as an essentially innocent beauty, much like most of Monroe’s characters.

    Listen to Zoolander speak. That breathy, dreamy voice Stiller adopts, which is nothing like his real one could easily belong to Pola Debevoise or Lorelei Lee or The Girl or (especially) Sugar Cane Kowalczyk.

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