Movies don’t always have to make sense. The chaps in the British group Monty Python pride themselves on their surreal, absurdist humor. Films like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” celebrate their goofiness, loose plots and self-referentiality. But those films are clever. Ben Stiller’s creative team is no Monty Python, and its “Zoolander 2” is far from being a “Holy Grail.” Suffice it to say nothing in “Zoolander 2” makes sense.
The film opens with Justin Bieber — who plays himself, of course. He’s racing down a dark, foggy street in Rome, pursued by motorcyclist assassins. When he’s backed into a corner, against a tall iron fence, he faces his pursuers and is then, in the most amazing 20-second scene in cinema history, riddled with bullets. It’s gratuitous, bloody, dramatic, and helped by the intense operatic score crescendoing beneath the gunfire. Bieber falls to the ground dead and unfortunately, nothing in the film ever quite reaches the absurd heights of those first three minutes.
Penélope Cruz plays the INTERPOL agent tasked with finding Bieber’s killer. Her only clue is Bieber’s final Instagram post, which the dying pop star uploaded on the damp, blood-soaked cobblestone street in the instant before he died. The expression on Bieber’s face is Blue Steel, one of Derek Zoolander’s famous looks. Not even INTERPOL can understand this case, and it’s clear that the only man for the job is Zoolander.
In a cabin in “extremely Northern New Jersey,” Zoolander has hidden himself from the world. He’s retired from modeling after the tragic, accidental death of his wife and the loss of his son. Derek Jr. was seized by authorities in a daring midnight raid on the Zoolander home after it was determined that Derek Zoolander, the dumbest man in the world, probably doesn’t make a good father.
Meanwhile, Hansel (Owen Wilson) is having familial issues of his own. Much like Zoolander, Hansel had been living in isolation, though Hansel chose to spend the rest of his days in a secluded hut in the “uncharted deserts of Malibu,” squirreled away with his 11 lovers. Billy Zane, who plays himself, comes to both Hansel and Zoolander to coax them out of retirement and bring them back into the big, dumb world of fashion that “Zoolander” has created.
While their reentry into this world might make a satisfying movie on its own, the film pulls the INTERPOL investigation back into its plot. The movie also goes out of its way to introduce an odd, tacked-on mythological element, a nefarious plan from Will Ferrell’s supervillain Mugatu, and Zoolander’s quest to reconnect with his son. It’s all a bit much to pack into a little more than an hour and a half.
To their credit, many of the performances are very lively and engaging. Stiller shines as the lead once again and a number of supporting characters steal the show. Sting has a surprise cameo and he’s absolutely terrific, as is Kiefer Sutherland, who plays one of Hansel’s lovers. As a bizarre fashion guru, Kristen Wiig is especially fun to watch, if not just to marvel at how she could have possibly gotten into her ridiculous costumes, and Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprise appearance as the enigmatic, gender-neutral model All.
Sadly, Cumberbatch’s total screen time is about 20 seconds more than what is seen of him in the trailer. Many of these celebrity appearances are very tangential to the story and nearly all of them feel like afterthoughts. Throwing celebrities in to play themselves is not a joke, yet there are at least 30 cameos in the film and most of them are accompanied by someone saying, “Katy Perry? What are you doing here?” or something to that effect with no punchline to follow. It’s great that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ariana Grande and Fred Armisen were having fun on the set of “Zoolander 2,” but their cameos add nothing to the movie. They don’t feel fluid at all. They effectively sabotage the film, distracting from what should be a fun romp about two very dumb fashion stars undergoing an existential crisis.
What’s more is that the film gets derailed as soon as it tries to bring its loose ends together. By the time Mugatu’s evil plot is unveiled, there are still so many narrative strands hanging in the air that the film has to rush itself to tie them all up into a neat little bow before the credits roll.
The narrative problems of “Zoolander 2” could be forgiven if the comedy around the story works, but there are very few jokes that land. Many references to popular culture are tossed around with nary a punchline to be found.
“Zoolander 2” could have been clever. It could have been witty, with consistently funny jokes or a compelling story. But it has none of these things, and it is ultimately a movie that is just as offensively dumb and pointlessly inane as its main characters. After Justin Bieber is gunned down in the opening scene, it’s just not worth staying for the rest of the hour and a half.