When the lighthearted and energetic “Zoolander,” based on a sketch for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards about dim-witted runway models, was released in 2001, it received generally warm notices for its dumb jokes yet found few takers in the aftermath of 9/11.
What it did eventually achieve though was cult status; its audience caught up with the comedy on DVD. So now we have “Zoolander 2,” a good 14 years later, with jokes much more out of date than that and frantic activity replacing zippy fun.
The target of “Zoo 1” was the fashion industry, which in itself is “stupid” since the fashion world was already its own parody — and has grown even more so. If you don’t believe me, I’ve got a Kardashian knock-off I’m dying to sell to you.
Mocking the fashion world is as thankless a task as trying to make fun of the current presidential nomination campaigns that surpass any attempt at satire by their own sheer goofiness.
What is puzzling if not draining about “Zoo 2” is that director, co-writer and star Ben Stiller has resurrected his Derek Zoolander character only to ignore its fashionista origins for a wildly over-plotted, discouragingly unfunny action-comedy bloated with celebrity cameos and desperately needing but lacking any satirical edge.
That four writers struggle to beat this out-of-control beast into shape betrays a lack of confidence on everyone’s part as to whether the stupid humor is stupid hip or stupid funny — or just stupid.
In their confusion, this braintrust mostly left behind a fashion industry that is certainly ripe for satire to plunge instead into the territory of a James Bond spoof complete with thundering music to pump up excitement.
The opening sequence tracks the nighttime chase of a man on foot along Rome’s narrow streets by two motorcyclist-assassins that ends with the murder of Justin Bieber. Despite taking more bullet hits than Bonnie and Clyde in their famous death scene, Bieber nonetheless manages to Instagram a final selfie as he dies.
Interpol fashion division chief and former swimsuit model Valentina Valencia (Penélope Cruz) recognizes Bieb’s farewell pout as reminiscent of one of Derek Zoolander’s classic looks, Blue Steel, which somehow links his death to other recent celebrity slayings.
Which means Derek (Stiller) and former rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), both recluses following a tragic accident some 10 years before, get drawn out of self-imposed exile to help solve the mystery of the murdered celebs. All it takes is an invitation from fashion queen Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) to come to Rome and hit the runway again.
Cue out-of-touch, out-of-style and out-of-sync jokes that grow stale long before they run out.
The movie heads off in any number of seemingly fruitless directions — Derek discovers his long lost son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), is bizarrely being raised in a Roman orphanage; Hansel struggles to find the identify of his real father; Valentina tries to get the two involved in her investigation — all stalls for time until Will Ferrell’s poor-sport villain Mugatu from “Zoo 1” can re-appear to jump start the action.
Mugatu is being held in an offshore fashion prison, which gives an inkling of the kind of sly satire the movie mostly ignores. He swiftly outsmarts Derek — this is easily done, of course — and gets loose to steal the third act with a plot to wipe out the most influential figures in the fashion world.
Drill down through any of this overkill and you’ll find a tiny sketch comedy throwing off one-liners and silly gags. Sadly, few work but then what chance did any have when dwarfed by huge sets, outsized costumes and an avalanche of cameos?
Throwaway line delivered by Stiller or Wilson get upstaged at every turn by a production running amok with 007 accessories and eye-catching Roman locations. The film exhausts rather than amuses and its silliness never rises to the level of smart or subversive.
Actors and cameos get wasted with nonchalance. Cruz looks fabulous but the film finds no way for her to become a comic foil to Stiller and Wilson. Nathan Lee Graham appears as Ferrell’s fey assistant but, like Wiig, disappears into the scenery.
The sheer number of cameos amazes you — don’t folks like Sting and Anna Wintour have better things to do? — but a few take hold such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s gender-bending super model Ali.
Stiller’s direction is wobbly with the camera going into actors’ eyes for weird transitions, far too many split centers of interest and clumsy grouping of his actors. He might have been better off hiring a director whose only job was to make sense of an overstuffed screenplay.
Cinematographer Dan Mindel, coming off “The Force Awakens” no less, manages a degree of coherence. Designer Leesa Evans’ outrageous costumes contain pertinent jokes but with so many vying for attention on camera only a few hit home.
Opens: February 12, 2016 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: A Red Hour/Scott Rudin production
Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penélope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Cyrus Arnold, Justin Theroux, Kyle Mooney
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenwriters: Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller, Nick Stoller, John Hamburg
Based on characters created by: Drake Sather, Ben Stiller
Producers: Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, Scott Rudin, Clayton Townsend
Executive producer: Jeff Mann
Director of photography: Dan Mindel
Production designer: Jeff Mann
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Leesa Evans
Editor: Greg Hayden
PG-13 rating, 102 minutes