There are, though, some topical gags about society as it exists today. For example, cellphones used to be small, and now they’re big again. Also, it’s fashionable to say that things are “farm-to-table,” and millennials seem to spend all their time pretending they aren’t excited or sincere about anything. Some of these observations are more accurate than others, but none of them could be called insightful. Other jokes land with a nastier thud, like the androgynous model “All” (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) who’s become the toast of the town during Derek Zoolander’s (Stiller) 15-year hiatus. Maybe there’s a point to be made here about how the fashion industry blandly tries to seize onto whatever trends it haphazardly identifies in society, but not when most of the jokes amount to Derek and Hansel (Owen Wilson) trying to guess if All has “a hot dog or a bun.”
Where the first film cleverly poked at the fashion world from outside its cloistered establishment, Zoolander 2 is clearly playing with house money. It’s roped in a cavalcade of industry stars who are loudly announced every time they appear on screen—Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Alexander Wang, Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, and more—but who seem unaware that they’re being satirized, partly because the jokes fall so flat. When in doubt, Zoolander 2 reaches for a celebrity appearance—there’s Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, others I’ve already forgotten—but does nothing with them.
The story concerns Zoolander returning to public life after going into seclusion following the death of his wife (Christine Taylor) from the first film. Drawn into a web of celebrity murders that seem tied to his legendary “Blue Steel” pose (the first of many opportunities the film takes to load up on the star cameos), Derek and Hansel are dragged back onto the scene to try and get to the bottom of things. The villainous Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is of course involved, as is a new designer mogul, the ridiculously-accented Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig). Penelope Cruz plays a helpful Interpol agent, and unfortunately, there’s also a Derek Zoolander Jr. involved, played by the young Cyrus Arnold.
It should be a rule for sequels like these to avoid subplots about mirthless children, but it’s a mistake almost all of them manage to make. I’m reminded of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues from 2013, a similarly unnecessary work that failed to build on its masterful predecessor and devoted way too much of the story to its main character’s stoic heir. Zoolander 2 makes Anchorman 2 look like tasteful piece of fine art, though—the former leans heavily on the joke that Derek’s kid is chubby and unattractive. Yes, the empty-headed models might be the ones technically being satirized here, but that feels like a disingenuous excuse when you consider how eager and gleeful the film is about mocking the child.