When Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) returns to the world of fashion, very few people care. In Zoolander 2, the male model finds that everyone has moved on during his 15-year absence; in fact, upon his arrival at the Rome airport with his rival turned best buddy Hansel (Owen Wilson), the paparazzi barely give him a second glance. The dim-witted character's on-screen comeback appears to subvert the film's off-screen reality, given that audiences have been clamouring for a follow-up to Zoolander ever since the 2001 feature became a cult favourite. Alas, it actually proves a sign of things to come, with the sequel rendering its central figure utterly forgettable.
The Derek Zoolander of today might still boast shiny hair and his famous facial expressions, but he's now a recluse who gave up his career and son after a tragedy. Only an invitation to sashay down the runway for superstar seamstress Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) lures him back into the spotlight, though his trip to Italy also thrusts him into the thick of another conspiracy plot. This time, celebrities are dropping like flies, leaving pouting, blue steel-style selfies behind. Enter Interpol fashion division agent Valentina (Penélope Cruz), who needs Derek's help to put an end to the assassinations.
Like many sequels, Zoolander 2 knows that viewers liked the first film, and isn't willing to stray far from that winning formula for its second outing. That means not just a similar story, the same levels of sartorial silliness and ample stupid dialogue, but plenty of overt nods to its predecessor. Indeed, spotting the references, repeats and rehashes — a familiar face here, a recycled line there — is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the movie. If you think that's a bad sign, you'd be right. If you think that everything else feels stretched, with countless twists and gags about obvious pop culture targets, you'd be right there too.
That sense of déjà vu you're feeling is by design. What sets the two films apart, other than the sequels bloated narrative, is their respective strike rates. Zoolander might've been little more than a collection of exaggerated sketches and quotable dialogue, but at least its jokes landed more often than they didn't, whether skewering the fashion industry or taking aim at society's obsession with superficiality. Here, the recognisable content raises a smile, but attempts to contemplate loyalty, legacy and longevity come across as cheap and easy. Everything else — taking down hipsters, packing in cameo appearances, literally killing off Justin Bieber, and having Hansel date an orgy — falls flat.
At least Stiller, as co-writer, director and star, can't be accused of lacking enthusiasm either in front of or behind the lens. Zoolander 2 is left wanting in the surprise and subtlety departments, however it forges ahead with the same energy he brings to his performance. Acting-wise, he's pulling the same faces and hitting the same beats — as is Wilson and scene-stealing fellow returnee Will Ferrell as devious designer Mugatu — but he doesn't seem as strained as the material he's working with. Ultimately though, Stiller's eagerness isn't enough. Just like there's a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking, there should be more to a long-awaited sequel than blatantly reliving past glories.