If the 2001 comedy Zoolander didn’t predict the rise of the selfie, it is certainly the case that its signature image of a face frozen in a gormless pout can now be seen wherever people own mobile phones with cameras. It was the supermodel Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) who perfected that look. And it was he who christened it “Blue Steel”. (The names he gives to his facial expressions – “Magnum”, “Aqua Vitae” – suggest an upmarket range of prophylactics.) Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Zoolander as a scatterbrain. As someone says of a self-obsessed thespian in Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade: “I doubt if you can scatter a void.”
A comedy that targets the superficiality and narcissism of the fashion industry is aiming not for low-hanging fruit but for produce that hit the ground decades ago. Zoolander found its focus, not to mention a sizeable audience, by making its title character as adorable as he was stupid. He wanted so badly to do good. Why else would he have opened the Derek Zoolander Centre for Children Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too?
As Zoolander 2 begins, he is living as a recluse in a remote cabin in extreme-north New Jersey. But now, Valentina (Penélope Cruz), an agent from Interpol’s fashion division, wants him to come out of retirement to help solve the murders of the world’s greatest music stars, each of whom has died with a Zoolander pout on their lips. If he can combine this with a rapprochement with his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson) and a trip to bond with his son, Derek, Jr (the fine, incredulous newcomer Cyrus Arnold), then so much the better.
Zoolander and Hansel have been away from the catwalk for a while, so the comic emphasis falls initially on how much has changed in their absence, such as language (they are mocked for saying “fresh”) and phones (they’ve got bigger). The pair are tricked into appearing in a fashion show at which they are ridiculed as lame – or, as Zoolander misreads it, lamé. They also find themselves flummoxed in the presence of the trans model All (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film’s trailer has been accused of transphobia but the joke is more about Zoolander’s outdated preoccupation with whether All possesses “a hot dog or a bun”.
Those complaints might have been countered if All had featured in more than two measly scenes. But the film-makers don’t exactly have a surplus of decent material. One scene calls for Zoolander and Hansel to become noticeably aroused in Valentina’s presence, though no one seems to know how to make the incident funny. In The Man With Two Brains, Steve Martin hung a hat on his hard-on and then broke a window pane with it. In Top Secret!, a ballerina tiptoed along an entire row of saluting erections. Pity today’s audiences, which are asked to find arousal funny in and of itself.
If the screenplay (credited to four writers, including Stiller, who also directed) skimps on richness, the same isn’t true of the visuals. Jeff Mann’s production design, which includes a stone prison in the middle of the ocean and a candy-coloured cell where Derek, Jr is taken to be fattened up by his father’s arch-enemy, Mugatu (Will Ferrell), is bold and ambitious. The costumes by Leesa Evans are positively operatic: the globe of stiff, interlaced ribbons that Alexanya (Kristen Wiig) wears on her head almost compensates for the character having nothing humorous to do aside from speaking in mangled, Clouseau-style English.
When a modest picture becomes a comic phenomenon, the temptation is to make its sequels conspicuously expensive and star-studded. It happened with the Austin Powers series, the Anchorman films and now Zoolander 2, in which celebrity guest stars pop up in lieu of gags. This will date the film for future viewers, who may need footnotes to understand who Susan Boyle, Katy Perry and Sting are – or were.
Comic film-makers used to know how to use their guest stars judiciously. In Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, Burt Reynolds admired his reflection in a mansion decorated with portraits of himself, while the only word in that entire picture (“Non!”) was spoken by the mime artist Marcel Marceau. Justin Bieber makes a splendid modern-day St Sebastian in the opening scene of Zoolander 2. But any picture that features an endless and indiscriminate parade of fashion industry bigwigs and music stars has traded finesse for saturation bombing.
“Zoolander 2” is out now
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle