You have to be a smart filmmaker to make something so gloriously dumb. Fifteen years after directing, co-writing, and starring in Zoolander, a featherlight and endearingly silly cult comedy about a dim male model caught up in an assassination plot, Ben Stiller has revived his character for a sequel that’s bigger, louder, and dumber. It’s uneven and unnecessary, and takes some time to really get going. But it’s also an admirable sustained effort of Hollywood money and craftsmanship put towards utter nonsense. Absurd and unusual, Stiller strains the limits of the studio comedy for completely unsubstantial goofing around with a ridiculously good-looking and totally preposterous premise. Is it a good movie? That’s hard to say. It barely hangs together at times, overstuffed with story and unconcerned with anything but a wobbly weirdness. But who says it has to be any more than that?
The movie finds Zoolander retired, living, as he puts it, “as a hermit crab” in the remote wintry wilderness of northernmost New Jersey. We’re told in a blitz of fake news footage that shortly after the first movie his wife was killed and his son was taken away by child services. That’s awfully heavy backstory to ladle on such a frivolous film, especially paired with a strange sideways 9/11 reference. But then Billy Zane (playing himself) treks out to convince Zoolander to start modeling again and win back his son from the orphanage. This kicks off an overflowing movie that’s in addition concerned with Zoolander’s equally dim old rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), who has also been retired for over a decade, nursing anxiety over a facial scar and a complicated polyamorous romance with a dozen people, including surprising celebrities and a handful of random people (my favorite: a chimney sweep who lingers in the background of shots). He agrees to join Zoolander on the quest to be relevant in the modeling world once again.
Together they encounter a whole mess of plot. There are professional frustrations with a hotshot hipster designer (Kyle Mooney, hilariously affecting dopey mispronunciations and fumbling confidence), a conniving Italian fashion mogul (Kristen Wiig, wearing Lady Gaga gowns and adding three extra syllables to every word), a suspicious orphanage manager (Justin Theroux, with a powdered George Washington wig slapped on top of dreadlocks), and the looming threat of old villain Mugatu (Will Ferrell, deliriously and wildly campy). There’s also an Interpol agent (Penélope Cruz) investigating the mysterious murders of several pop stars (including Justin Bieber, in a cameo that’s 90% stunt double which serves as the film’s violent cold open) and a search for the Fountain of Youth. There’s a lot going on. The movie feeds exaggerated excesses of the fashion industry into a glossy spy movie’s extremes, inane ornate designs mixed with thundering score, concussive transitions, and a hurtling tangle of conspiracies.
A key early mistake is assuming we care about Zoolander and Hansel as characters, but by the time the plot’s spinning on its crazy way, the movie itself has forgotten that it ever even feinted towards taking any emotional underpinning at anything close to face value. Even as the subplot involving the long-lost son becomes the best part, Stiller knows this is all totally unserious, an elaborate goof. He, with co-writers Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg, create a reason to stuff the film chockablock with innuendos, misunderstandings, malapropisms, sight gags, cameos, baroquely offbeat production design, wackadoodle characterizations, and more than a few baffling decisions (like making Fred Armisen play a freakish, mostly CGI 11-year-old for one scene). Cinematographer Dan Mindel (of The Force Awakens and other fantastical action films) gives it all a shiny thriller gloss and bright comedy sheen, playing up every absurd detail with a grainy poker face.
Stiller simply lets the unexpected striking nonsense flow. There’s a scene late in the picture where a boy is locked in a clown-themed dungeon with a giant plastic pig face on the wall drizzling lard out of its snout. Elsewhere a car flips over a dozen more times than you’d expect. A former swimsuit model explains she became a secret agent because her large breasts prevented her from graduating to runway work. A ghost serenely explains that she doesn’t care about anything anymore, because she’s dead. A long-secret connection between male models and rock stars is revealed by a music legend who patiently says they’re only separated by two genes (talent and intelligence). Not every joke lands. (An extended bit with Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender fluid model is cringe-worthy.) But with a movie this densely dizzy with oddball ideas loosely held together by a flimsy plot, it’s a pleasure just to be along for the ride. I had a big dumb grin while waiting to see what insubstantial surprise silliness was around the next corner.