Review: Profoundly unfunny ‘Zoolander 2’ faceplants on the runway

I wanted to laugh last night. Hell, I needed to laugh last night. And Zoolander 2 failed me completely.

Brutally unfunny, visually off-putting, and filled with cameos so embarrassing I am bruised from holding a cringe for a full half-hour, Zoolander 2 is every horrible decision you can make with a comedy sequel wrapped up into one nigh unbearable film.

There is a single shot in one scene of Olivia Munn, and I couldn't tell you what she was playing or what role got cut down in the final film, but that one last errant useless shot, left in instead of being totally excised with the rest of her part, sums up the way the entire film feels to me. It feels like it was thrown together in a blender and just poured into a cup indifferently, no matter what ended up blended in there. So many jokes fall so flat that it's almost impressive after a while. Characters appear and disappear randomly, and they hold the entrance of the film's villain so long that I forgot he was in the movie by the time he finally showed up.

There is something off from the very start, and as a director, I think this might be the shabbiest thing Ben Stiller has ever been part of. The opening scene is a chase involving a pair of motorcycles and one of the many celebrity cameos, and looking at how Stiller shot the action, I was struck that he seems to think everyone's still doing that annoying “camera never stops moving and never quite holds a frame” shaky thing that everyone did for about four years. Action's swung back around to a cleaner, more traditional overall aesthetic, and if Stiller's trying to make this feel of-the-moment, he whiffed it. Considering this is a movie about two characters who are deeply out of touch with the zeitgeist and who also depend on the appearance of cool to be successful, it is almost enjoyable on a meta-textual level that the film is so powerfully out of touch and so wildly, enthusiastically uncool.

… almost.

I've said this before in print, and it's more true than ever: comedy sequels are harder than any other kind of sequel. Even horror sequels seem to be slightly easier, although only slightly. When you see a comedy for the first time, much of the impact comes from the way things blindside you, the way the film's sense of humor is gradually revealed to you. Laughter is an involuntary reaction, and the more you know what's coming, the less likely it is to make you laugh. There were about four jokes or performance beats or ideas in this film that genuinely surprised me, and in every case, I laughed. The rest of the time?

I know that when I go see a comedy, I walk in open to laughter, but that doesn't mean I'm going to just cackle at anything. In the case of Zoolander 2, I'll admit that I was not the first film's biggest fan. I thought it was sporadically funny, but I find the world of high fashion so over-the-top stupid to begin with that it's hard to exaggerate it. I had the same problem with Bruno. It's hard to make fashion look ridiculous when they have such a big head start. Zoolander is basically a pretty Dumb and Dumber, and Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are a winning combination by the end of the film. For me, the highlight of the first film was Will Ferrell's character Mugatu, and I was hoping that adding Kristen Wiig, one of his best comic foils, would carry his character right over whatever over-the-top bar he set the first time.

While there are indeed a few funny moments between Wiig and Ferrell, they are few and so disconnected from anything around them that it feels like spitting into the Grand Canyon; it makes no difference. Written by Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg, this is a deeply ridiculous script. Tragedy has struck between films, and Derek Zoolander (Stiller) finds himself widowed, his son Derek Jr. taken from him by the state, and intentionally living as “a hermit crab.” How much you laugh in this film will be based largely on how funny you find Stiller's intentionally stupid character and his malapropisms. Most of them are so forced and obvious that I just didn't laugh. When Billy Zane, playing Billy Zane, manages to recruit both Zoolander and Hansel (Wilson) back to the world of modeling, it kicks off another espionage plot that is so convoluted and absurd that it becomes a chore by the time the film is done.

While I think some of the jokes in the film take cheap shots at questionable targets, that is the least of the film's problems. I believe you can make jokes about anything as long as they're good jokes, and I'm confused how Stiller and his collaborators missed the mark so completely. Take the big climax of the film, for example. It's such a misfire from concept to execution and completely packed with fashion-world cameos, and after every attempted punchline, they cut around the room so all of these famous non-actors can “react hilariously,” and the repetition and rhythm of it becomes almost infuriating. Great. Congratulations. Marc Jacobs and Valentino and Anna Wintour are in your film. They're not funny, and giving them more lines only reinforces the point.

If the first film cast Zoolander as a sort of male model Manchurian Candidate, this one is more of an Austin Powers riff, with INTERPOL agent and former swimsuit model Valentina (Penelope Cruz, who tries to make the role work, but to little avail) recruiting Zoolander to help her catch whoever has been killing the world's most beautiful celebrities. They have to do a lot of legwork to get Zoolander and Hansel back together, and then to set up the bad guy, and then finally reveal the bad guy, and then by that point, they just rush straight through to the end. And it all feels like busy work, with the same “Zoolander is an idiot” joke throughout. The other running joke is that each of the main characters have a clearly stated “issue” they have to resolve by the end of the film, and Hansel's issue is that he's afraid to commit to his significant other. Which, in this case, is an orgy. And they go back to that orgy joke a whooooooooole lot. If that makes you laugh, great, but I thought it was an awful joke the first time, and it gets so much worse as it goes that it's grating by the end. I think there are people working really hard here to try to make it work, like Kristen Wiig's “what planet is that from?” accent and make-up or Kiefer Sutherland, who takes a positively preposterous role and plays it with every bit of sincerity he can muster, but it's not enough, and it can't save the film at all.

As a final qualifier, I took a friend with me last night who positively adores the first film. There's a throwback joke about midway through this one that references the Wham! scene in the first movie, and at the end of it, my friend leaned over and quietly said, “Is it just me, or is this movie terrible?”

It is not just you, buddy. Chalk this up to another long-delayed disappointment.

Zoolander 2 is in theaters on Friday.