I almost walked out on this movie.
I walk out on more movies lately. Very often not because the movie is objectively terrible (though that happens), but because I find myself bored. In the course of the ‘quarterlife crisis’ I’ve found myself in over the past few years, I’ve wondered about how many hours of my life – days, cumulatively – I’ve spent watching movies I just didn’t like that much. In high school, I used to sit through crap just because an actor or filmmaker I liked was tangentially related to the film in question, and that was reason enough for me. Nowadays, that simply doesn’t cut the muster. (Mustard?)
This goes both ways of course. I walked out after an hour’s worth of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, despite the promise of a visually stunning interpretation of the Seven Plagues because, by all accounts, it was a boring-ass movie (also a very whitewashed one.) However, I also walked out of a screening of Billy Wilder’s comedy classic, The Seven Year Itch. I had already laughed pretty hard at a couple of points, but it had been 30 minutes and it just didn’t seem like it was going to grab me. In hindsight, I’ve often wondered if this was a mistake.
Why did I keep watching Zoolander 2, even though it’s not a very funny movie? Well, I wanted to believe it could be good, and these things gave me hope…
• THE RETURN OF BILLY ZANE!!! I think I may be the only person left who cares about Billy Zane, but he starred in The Phantom and voiced a bad guy in the first Kingdom Hearts game, so he is irrevocably tied to my childhood. He reminds of Brendan Fraser, another actor who was on top for a bit and then got sent to the proverbial ‘Movie Jail’ for no real reason. But, hopefully his role in Amazon’s new show, Mad Dogs, and this cameo signal his return to the public consciousness.
• A spectacularly staged car crash gag that comes out of nowhere. The hardest I laughed in this whole movie. I won’t give away the setup but trust me on this.
• Benedict Cumberbatch as the fashion model All, who seems to exist outside of any know definition of gender or sexuality. I’ll be honest, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the ‘Batch, but his character is one of the few that is funny right off the bat and doesn’t overstay their welcome.
• Kristin Wiig’s character does overstay her welcome, but she does get a couple of very funny bits: a fake skin cream commercial, and this one small moment she does something weird with her lips.
• Susanne Boyle flipping the middle finger and saying the word ‘Fuck!’
• Cyrus Arnold, the young boy who plays Zoolander’s chubby son in this movie. He doesn’t really get much in the way of laugh out loud moments, but he does make an excellent straight man to the insanity around him, and holds his own ground against the adults here. This kid could have a bright future, keep an eye on him.
And in those six bullet points, I’ve listed about everything good to find in the first hour of this movie. Penelope Cruz deserves kudos for being utterly game here and playing it the most seriously out of everyone, but the fact that she keeps getting underserved in her English-speaking roles is depressing enough to turn that into a negative. Owen Wilson, usually so spry and assured in these charming idiot roles, looks and sounds like he would rather be anywhere else in the world. And Ben Stiller, the director, co-writer, co-producer, and brainchild of this whole endeavor (the Zoolander character originated as a parody sketch for VH1’s fashion shows) somehow manages to overplay a character whose very nature is buffoonish. I double-checked this and yes he did make the voice his character between this movie and the last one sound dumber, and that’s not a good thing. It’s like the man who created Derek Zoolander forgot how to play Derek Zoolander.
Zoolander 2’s biggest problem is it constantly finds the bones of something funny but then hammers that note over and over and over again until it simply becomes a shrill shrieking sound in your ears. Kiefer Sutherland as a member of (one of) Owen Wilson’s polyamorous relationships is a mildly amusing idea the first time, not the five other times you’re reminded of it. Piling on the celebrity cameos isn’t fun or funny when the joke is their presence, not what they’re doing. Jokes are pilfered wholesale from the original and dropped into this sequel without a surprising context to enhance them, and again, the punchlines all go on for several beats longer than they should. (Even one of my favorite jokes from the original, the ‘coffee scene’, falls victim to this.)
Even the original ideas here suffer the same fate. Early on, Stiller seems on the cusp of making a valid point about the attitudes of hipster culture in the form of Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), a fashion designer whose only inspiration comes from replicating patterns of the past and remarking on how much everything sucks. “Look at this,” he says, pulling back his sleeves to show a tattoo of a Sith Lord Col. Sanders. “It’s terrible! Why would I do this to myself? It’s awesome, dude, I love it!” Funny the first couple of times, not the next 15 minutes this character says variations on this exact same thing.
What kept me in the movie? Namely: the promise of Will Ferrell’s Mugatu, Zoolander’s fashion nemesis, now in Fashion Prison. Say what you will about Ferrell as a leading man (those movies are all pretty hit or miss), but he often brings a real boost to projects he’s not the star of, and that’s exactly the case here. Though it takes him a solid hour to get there, once Ferrell shows up the film gains a serious amount of momentum. In fact, he stays funny for about three whole scenes! But eventually, as with everything else in this movie, he overstays his welcome, finds the same beat, hits it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and you get the idea.