The element of surprise is a cornerstone of comedy, which is why comedy sequels are such a tricky business. Repeating ideas past their freshness expiration date is like eating last week’s fish sticks.
So what happens when after a 15-year absence, male model Derek Zoolander catwalks his way back into theaters in “Zoolander 2”?
The original “Zoolander” was a sharp and provocative satire of an image-obsessed society. As the film’s director and “really, really good-looking” imbecile hero, Ben Stiller created a comedy that was too smart for the room in 2001. It found an appreciative audience on video, slowly rising to well-deserved cult hit status. And that’s where he should have left it.
The vehicle’s second lap sets a track record for wringing the fewest laughs out of the most expensive retreaded material. The plot reunites Derek with his pal Hansel (Owen Wilson), shipping them to a travelogue-handsome Rome. That’s where his son (Cyrus Arnold) was moved into foster care after Derek withdrew from the world following his wife’s tragic death. He wants to reconnect with the tween, while an Interpol Global Fashion Police agent (Penelope Cruz) wants his help cracking a mysterious war between top designers and camera-ready music celebrities.
The film’s Italian setup gives us a pulsating motorcycle chase and a machine-pistol murder of Justin Bieber that provides one of the film’s few really, really good-looking sequences.
“Zoolander 2” is not an utter botch. The costumes are a riot of bows, flounces, platform shoes and graphic silhouettes that Lady Gaga’s stylist would love. Arnold feels like an up and comer as plus-size Derek Jr., whose weight makes his dad look to the heavens and howl, “Who am I?” Kyle Mooney is fine as an absurd design assistant fluent in hipster gibberish, and his couture queen boss Alexanya Atoz (ever-entertaining Kristen Wiig) communicates in an accent sounding pure Martian.
The best moments kick in when Will Ferrell shrieks his way across the screen as the first film’s arrogant design overlord Mugatu. Ferrell is always in top form when he goes full crazypants. Unfortunately he doesn’t arrive until the film is two-thirds over.
The movie features a flotilla of don’t-blink cameo appearances, including Benedict Cumberbatch as a cartoonish transgender model that resembles a Kardashian-Jenner knockoff and Fred Armisen inexplicably transformed into an 11-year-old guide for Atoz’s VIP guests. It’s hard to see what motivated Willie Nelson and John Malkovich to join in, and the guest list multiplies to the point that the overstuffed film resembles a giant sardine tin.
Rather than echoing a winning follow-up like “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” this ill-advised repeat resembles unsalvageable messes like “Caddyshack II,” “Dumb and Dumber To” and “Blues Brothers 2000.” In fact, pinning a 2 onto the title in some form is a hint that the project is not overflowing with creative imagination. Remember that.
“Zoolander 2” aims for a natty style, but in the catchphrase that “Project Runway” fashion guru Tim Gunn would use to condemn a too-slouchy suit, they can’t make it work.