**/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C
starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penélope Cruz
written by Justin Theroux and John Hamburg & Ben Stiller and Nicholas Stoller
directed by Ben Stiller
by Bill Chambers It opens with Justin Bieber taking more bullets than Sonny Corleone. So far, so good. Bieber commemorates his death with an Instagram selfie, which makes me want to purse my lips against my fingertips and blow a kiss to the chef--mwah! News of Bieber's assassination raises alarms at Fashion Interpol, where his death selfie is compared against those of several other musicians, all of whom died making the same pouty face as Bieber. (Madonna being among them strikes me as more of a production designer's idea of a joke.) Struggling to decipher the meaning of the pose, Agent Valentina Valencia (Penélope Cruz) finally surrenders to the idea that there's only one person who might have the insight she needs: Austin Powers! No, wait--Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller)!
But seriously: With so little precedent for a character this bizarre enduring beyond one film, Zoolander 2 perhaps helplessly slips into the rhythms and patterns of an Austin Powers sequel. Here, Derek has lost his mojo (i.e., the ability to perform his objects-stopping Magnum gaze), and let it be known that Valentina Valencia is Felicity Shagwell by any other name. Whatever pretense of the real world once existed is gone; the film seems to take place in the snow globe of Zoolander's subconscious, where anything can happen within his limited but distorted realm of understanding. It's a world where Kiefer Sutherland, as himself (more on that momentarily), can not only get pregnant, but tragically miscarry, too. ("I guess kicking down the door wasn't such a good idea," he laments.) Zoolander and the gang have mostly ossified into pullstring See 'n Says, though to encore the greatest hits of a fifteen-year-old movie whose footprint on popular culture has long since dissipated is to masturbate, really, and the celebrity cameos--about the same number as the previous film's, but much more elaborately integrated this time around--feel no less onanistic. In Austin Powers in Goldmember (the one with Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg, Britney Spears, et al) and now Zoolander 2, the guest stars are good for cheap laughs, yet it turns these movies into private parties, compounding their insularity. That being said, Stiller uses famous faces a bit more irreverently, in part by reserving all the reverence for Billy Zane.
Zane summons Zoolander and Hansel (Owen Wilson) back to modelling after a lengthy absence, during which they became estranged recluses. It appears that the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good collapsed due to being constructed with the same materials that were used to build its scale model, killing Derek's wife (Christine Taylor) and disfiguring Hansel. As much as I appreciated the grim hilarity of this development, there's a shot of the crumbling, smoking edifice against the morning sky that, in its implicit reference to the original's Autumn 2001 release date and storied history with 9/11, suggests Stiller is trolling the late Roger Ebert, who famously called Zoolander "exhibit A" in why the terrorists hate us and blasted it for digitally erasing the Twin Towers "so that audiences would not be reminded of the tragedy, as if we have forgotten." It's untimely and leaves a sour aftertaste, which perfectly sums up Zoolander 2, wherein Will Ferrell's fiendish Mugatu resurfaces with a plot--as exposited by Sting--to tap the Fountain of Youth. All he needs is the blood of Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who's been living in an Italian orphanage ever since the widowed Zoolander was deemed an unfit father. Fear not the false sentiment of this thread, at least, as Stiller's mainly taking the piss out of that cynical Adam Sandler and even Mike Myers thing of demanding empathy for their grotesque creations. (Zoolander's parenting struggles include not knowing what to do with raw spaghetti: "D.J., how did Mommy make it soft?!") Would that the movie's targets were always so apt.
Points, incidentally, for mirroring Zoolander's struggle to connect with his father in the original: The prodigal son has become the prodigal father. Zoolander 2 may seem like a regression, but in fact Stiller's directing career charts an evolution from the modified teen angst of Reality Bites to a trilogy of pop critiques that culminated in the self-reflexive Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. Though he bit off more than he could chew in his dream project, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it's a touching film that marks the first time he ever showed one of his own characters any mercy. If Zoolander 2 doesn't quite squander this maturity (the subject of fatherhood logically progresses, Antoine Doinel-like, from the romantic denouement of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), it also suggests a by-product of that picture's commercial failure and the Gen-X panic Stiller portrayed so adeptly in Noah Baumbach's While We're Young. Zoolander and Hansel are veritable Rip Van Winkles, but--distinguishing the film from its Austin Powers template, as well as Zoolander 2's immediate predecessor--it's the cultural innovations they encounter that are held up to ridicule, such as phones that are bigger than Zoolander's (redeeming his microscopic cellphone from the original), hipster patois (although "hashtag" has for some reason penetrated Derek's vocabulary), and a gender-neutral model (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose name, All, and uncanniness mock the trans movement at a particularly precarious moment in our history.
Stiller remains one of the few comic filmmakers working who knows his lenses and avoids high-key lighting, and his versatile eye, honed in dead-on parodies for "The Ben Stiller Show" and MTV, can by now be considered formal chops. He could seamlessly transition to studio tentpoles in any genre, if he wanted to. (The weirdest criticism I read of Zoolander 2 is that its action scenes look dated--this, from someone who didn't object to the stale, relentless shakycam of Captain America: Civil War.) Stiller cuts on beats; he knows how to pace. He recognizes the value of story structure and a well-crafted gag (the same discipline, ultimately), however derivative the screenplay for Zoolander 2, and he practices the lost art of silliness. In an age where all you need for movie comedy, to paraphrase Godard, is a girl and a bong, Stiller's a precious commodity, moreover a dying breed. No wonder he's lashing out at the status quo, then, but if my seven years on Twitter have taught me anything, it's that bitterness rarely brings the funny.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
A switch in cinematographers from Barry Peterson (21 Jump Street) to Dan Mindel (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)--and from celluloid to digital--for the sequel does not, surprisingly, lead to much aesthetic disharmony between the two films, although Mindel puts his stamp on Zoolander 2 by erring on the side of underexposure, as is his wont. The 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer is lush and steely as anticipated, with ripe albeit slightly oversaturated colours that give the Italian vistas a tactile warmth and add a candied zip to the outrageous costumes and sets. Fine detail is tempered by the use of Panavision anamorphic lenses, enhancing the cinematic quality of a notably grain-free--and thankfully noise-free--image. The bitrate averages a respectable 26Mbps and the compression proves its mettle during a challenging tableau in the aftermath of a glitter bomb. An attendant DTS:X track, as compacted to fit my 5.1 speaker configuration, is overwhelmingly crisp, transparent, and sonorous; eschewing front-heavy comedy mixing, this doesn't sound like something called Zoolander 2. Note that the platter contains only an Unrated edition of the film, whose theatrical release was rated PG-13 and ran, contrary to convention, a minute longer than this alternative cut. Having not seen Zoolander 2 during its brief run, I'm at a loss to identify the subtractions or replacements. For what it's worth, while the movie can get pretty risqué, I don't recall anything in it that would necessarily threaten the PG-13 rating.
Despite its "Magnum Edition" imprimatur, the HiDef supplementary material is of average length and quality. "The Zoolander Legacy" is a 9-minute piece that begins, somewhat startlingly, with Owen Wilson using 9/11 as a scapegoat for the original's allegedly poor box-office. Zoolander actually grossed an impressive $60M domestically on a meagre $28M budget, but that doesn't fit the narrative this featurette aims to establish: that the picture's avalanching cult momentum made a belated sequel inevitable. In a more objective reality, Zoolander was a popular movie with a cultish half-life. No fair asking the likes of Tommy Hilfiger (whose Zoolander impersonation haunts the backs of my eyelids), either, because of course people in the fashion industry are going to overestimate the staying power of their very own Caddyshack. The best part is when Stiller says the script for Zoolander 2 was written three times over a fifteen-year span and Derek Jr. kept getting older and older.
In "Go Big or Go Rome" (8 mins.), Stiller credits the Valentino documentary The Last Emperor as a major impetus for shooting in Rome. (The production wound up occupying the enormous Fellini stage at Cinecittà.) He boned up on Italian cinema, too, and singles out Vittorio DiSica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow as a film he both enjoyed discovering and banked as visual inspiration for Zoolander 2. "Drake Sather: The Man Who Created Zoolander" (8 mins.) is a tribute to the late comedian and Zoolander screenwriter featuring the lengthy participation of Judd Apatow, who worked with Sather on "The Larry Sanders Show". Not sure the outspoken Sather would approve of the demureness of the segment, which neglects to mention how he died (he committed suicide in 2004), but it's nice of the studio to honour this largely obscure figure's claim to fame. Lastly, "Youth Milk" (1:30) is a viral video advertising Alexanya Atoz's beauty cream that arguably exploits Kristen Wiig's unique presence as the baffling Atoz better than Zoolander 2 proper. Automatically streaming random trailer content on startup, the Paramount disc comes packaged with DVD and Ultraviolet copies of the film's unrated version.