Following the recent trend of Hollywood franchises returning to the big screen with their original casts — from “Star Wars” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — “Zoolander 2” released Feb. 12, is a comedy that may not have the most nuanced and original plotline but successfully delivers the nostalgic punch that faithful audiences of the original expect to see.
“Zoolander 2” follows the familiar pair of male fashion models, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson), as these long-vanished washouts struggle to catwalk back into the limelight. Invited to Rome to take part in a high-end fashion show, the two models face a generational culture shock as they encounter the quirky younger designers and models who have come to dominate the scene since their absence. At the same time, Derek hopes to win back the love of his estranged son, Derek Zoolander Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who by chance or fate happens to be living in an orphanage in Rome.
Beneath these coincidental events is a James Bond-esque conspiracy — cue the jazzy spy music and luxurious speeding cars — where pop stars like Justin Bieber are mysteriously murdered in their attempts to protect an ambiguous “Chosen One.” With the help of Interpol fashion agent Valentina (Penelope Cruz), Derek and Hansel attempt to uncover the sinister plot lurking beneath the runway.
The original “Zoolander” movie came out in 2001, marking a 15-year gap with its newly released sequel. This timespan seems to have worked in the franchise’s favor, as it allowed for Stiller, who directed both films, to resurface memorable punchlines from the original film while introducing a fresh layer of content. In the opening, Stiller eases the audience into the second film with a convenient montage of all the events that took place from 2001 up until 2016, allowing him to quickly jump right into the thick of the story.
Both “Zoolander” movies are essentially a parody of the exclusive and elusive fashion world. As such, all the old tropes return with fervor. From Derek’s famous portfolio of facial expressions including Magnum and Blue Steel to his School for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, and carrying through to the ridiculously evil schemes concocted by the fashion elite, the goofiness of Ben Stiller’s screwball humor holds up to that of its predecessor.
Beyond these favorite moments inherited from the cult classic, Stiller ushers in new themes that play on the tropes of a millennial generation. Justin Bieber’s overdramatized death in the opening scene begins a laugh-worthy motif of poorly timed selfie sprees, launching the film’s subsequent allusions to pop culture. Combined with the countless celebrity cameos by stars across the spectrum — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, to name a few — “Zoolander 2” emphasizes the technologically and social media-driven culture that has risen since Derek and Hansel’s fall from fame after the first film.
Perhaps the funniest moment that sums up this generational friction is the scene glimpsed in the film’s trailer, where the androgynous model named All, played by a hilariously straight-faced Benedict Cumberbatch, encounters the aging Derek and Hansel for the first time alongside their incomprehensible hipster designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney).
The movie’s over-the-top comedy provides line after line of relatable dialogue, drawing this power both from the nostalgia of the original and the familiarity of its pop culture references. However, there are scenes where the derivative humor falls flat, such as with the nonsensical visits from Hansel’s hippie crew and their yawn-inducing sexual debauchery, which is meant to be reminiscent of the first film’s bawdy nature. Likewise, there are moments where the pop culture references overwhelm the film to the point where some audiences might feel disconnected or miss the joke completely. It would probably take two or three viewings of the film to be able to pick out every bit of millennial influence embedded into the scenes, such as Skrillex’s surprising cameo as the DJ for the upcoming fashion show in one music-dominated scene.
On a serious note, the movie’s reputation as a well-known parody of the fashion world allows it to tackle contemporary themes that touch on the more controversial and often taboo topics plaguing the industry. Zoolander’s hesitation to accept his overweight son, as well as Valentina’s failed modeling career — on the grounds that her breasts were too big to fit standard clothing sample sizes — are just two examples of a series of societal biases taken for granted by the characters in this cutthroat culture.
Like any of Ben Stiller’s comedies, “Zoolander 2” doesn’t hide behind nuanced dialogue or subtle displays of emotion. Overall, it is a feel good movie with a hint of critical self-reflection, and, even then, it never takes itself too seriously. The film attempts to follow faithfully in the original’s footsteps through its undisguised humor, and in this respect, “Zoolander 2” succeeds with a glitter bomb of flying colors.