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Zoolander 2

(2016) ** Pg-13
102 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Ben Stiller. Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell.


Look, let's not kid ourselves. Zoolander 2 isn't Citizen Kane. Zoolander 2 isn't even Zoolander. But those in the mood for pure unadulterated silliness could do worse than Ben Stiller's flimsy-fun sequel to his 2001 fashion-world comedy.

Stiller directs, co-writes, produces and stars as Derek Zoolander, a gifted supermodel sidelined by tragedy. It takes pep talks from old friend Billy Zane (playing himself) to get Zoolander and orgy-loving BFF Hansel (Owen Wilson) back in the game, as it were. But the game has changed somewhat: pop stars are being knocked off by some nefarious individual, prompting Interpol (Fashion Division) to dispatch sexy agent Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz). Valentina tracks down Zoolander in one of countless absurd plot developments that mark Zoolander 2 as a willful mockery of the purported need for narrative coherence. “Good luck trying to nail us for a stupid plot,” screenwriters Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg seem to say. “We flaunt it proudly.”

The story also brings in Derek’s long-abandoned son Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who becomes a temporary subject of fat shaming (from his own father) before coming into his own. It’s also no surprise that the sequel reunites us with a few key characters from the original film while providing opportunities for more contemporary comic talent: Fred Armisen (digitally shrunk to pint size), Kyle Mooney (as amusingly annoying millennial designer Don Atari), and MVP Kristin Wiig (brilliantly funny as the nearly incomprehensible fashion matron of the House of Atoz).

If the plot is stupid, the hit-and-miss humor tends to juvenile and lazy jokes, overly reliant on pop-culture cameos to goose laughs of surprise and recognition. Given that, I’ll resist spoiling them all, but suffice it to say that this is a movie that begins with the machine-gun murder of Justin Bieber (playing himself), whose final gesture on planet Earth is a ripe bit of satire of both celebrities and just about everyone addicted to social media. It’s too bad that Zoolander 2 can’t or won’t keep itself on this sharp edge of the knife; most of the picture is more like a plastic spoon, feeding us the kind of self-aware high camp that went out with the sixties and returned with a vengeance in the Austin Powers years.

It doesn’t help Zoolander 2 that it so blithely writes off Cruz’s character as a sex object (the butt of constant boob jokes) and so thoroughly teases Zoolander and Hansel’s homosexual tendencies for laughs safely played for nonstick characterization. Other than redeeming Derek Jr.’s extra pounds through a shared acceptance with Derek, Zoolander 2 doesn’t have much that’s instructive to say to its audience, which presumably skews to the uninitiated preteen and those with fond memories of Stiller’s fifteen-year-old original. Rather, it’s a goofy gag machine that will raise smiles for some and make others just plain gag.

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