About 30 minutes into “Zoolander 2,” world-famous male models and cultural has-beens Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) check into a cutting-edge Rome hotel that looks like an industrial accident. It’s called the Palazzo D’Caca and is made, we’re told, from recycled human waste.
This is not only one of the few successful jokes in “Zoolander 2” but a decent description of the movie itself.
But, really, who has been waiting for a follow-up to Stiller’s 2001 “Zoolander,” a funny but tissue-thin goof on the fashion industry? Besides Marc Jacobs, I mean? The original falls far short of the high-water mark for modern Stu-Coms — that would be 2004’s “Anchorman” — but it’s sweet and very silly and loaded with pop cameos that make an audience feel hip.
By contrast, this needless sequel amps the silliness to DEFCON-4 levels of frantic surrealism and overstuffs the running time with famous faces. It’s a pop quiz instead of a movie, and it’ll be dated by tomorrow morning.
Stiller again directs, co-writes, and plays the title character, a cosmic moron of a fashion star whose arsenal of “looks” — the famous Zoolander lost-puppy pout — has faded with time. He’s living the life of a “hermit crab” in the frozen north of New Jersey when Billy Zane, pulled out of mothballs to play himself once more, calls Derek and Hansel back into action in Rome. Someone is killing the great pop stars of our time, and, admittedly, “Zoolander 2” opens with the perfectly pleasant notion of Justin Bieber being mowed down by villains and taking one last selfie before he dies.
Actually, there are lots of good stupid ideas in this movie, but they’re steamrollered by the bad stupid ones and by flabby pacing that leaves scene after mirthless scene stranded. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard a preview audience, usually a room full of easy marks, laugh less.) When Zoolander and Hansel arrive at that hipster hotel, there’s a pretty good one-liner about “farm to table Wi-Fi” that the screenwriters repeat over and over until they’ve made sure everyone gets it. That’s not how you create comedy — that’s how you kill it.
“Zoolander 2” is just another lazy grab bag of sketch ideas acted out by “Saturday Night Live” cast members and alumni, each of whom comes up with a schtick and then beats it into the ground. Kyle Mooney as a street-rat fashion designer just says “Wha-a-at?” a lot, a barely recognizable Kristen Wiig mangles the English language as a Donatella Versace clone, and Will Ferrell chews the scenery as returning arch-villain Mugatu.
There are real actors gamely playing along, too. Some are humiliated, like Penelope Cruz as a va-va-va-voom member of the Interpol Fashion Police. Others manage to find the funny, like Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender-nonspecific supermodel named All, who, we’re told, has just married “hermself.” Also, a famous classic rocker turns up in pretty much the spot where the late David Bowie stood in the original, and such randoms as Katy Perry, Kiefer Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, and Willie Nelson are briefly spotted. I think the latter must have taken a wrong turn on his way to the bathroom.
Most of “Zoolander 2” is funnier to describe than actually experience, like the Fashion Prison where Mugatu is kept along with MC Hammer and Skip Taylor of Members Only. Cyrus Arnold is good scornful company as Zoolander’s teenage son, though, and every now and then the dialogue lands with a nicely dry splat. (The Interpol agent to Zoolander: “Please accept my apologies.” Zoolander: “None taken.”) More often, it’s just desperate and tired (”Hashtag oops”).
At the very end, the movie does crash through the wall of forced slapstick into something genuinely strange (spoiler alert for those who care): a ritual sacrifice where the cult members are the world’s most famous names in fashion, playing themselves. To see the likes of Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Anna Wintour, and Kate Moss baying for the blood of an innocent so that they might remain eternally young is more viciously, truthfully funny than the movie has any idea what to do with. For one brief moment, “Zoolander 2” bites the hands that feed it. The rest just bites.
Directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg. Starring Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Cyrus Arnold. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 102 minutes. PG-13 (crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, brief strong language)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.