When Kiefer Sutherland is the funniest person in your movie, you have a problem.
Unfortunately, "Zoolander No. 2" is exactly what its trailers make it look like: A once wonderfully funny idea beaten to death with the same jokes that seemed much better 15 years ago. Despite the best attempts by writers Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux to actually advance the plot, "Zoolander No. 2" falls somewhere between the second and third Austin Powers movies on the laugh scale.
Too bad, because the predecessor, 2001's "Zoolander," was a hilariously fresh take on the silly world of high fashion. But as the sequel makes clear, they should have left it there.
The original ended with our heroes -- the world's greatest male model, Derek Zoolander (Stiller), and his friend and fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson) -- saving the fashion world from the evil antics of Mugatu (played hilariously -- in 2001 -- by Will Ferrell). As the sequel opens, Zoolander's dream of running a reading school for kids has literally crumbled. After losing his wife and son and alienating Hansel, Derek has gone into hiding. Meanwhile, Hansel journeys into the vast desert wastelands of outer Malibu with his new family (and by "new," I mean something no one has ever dreamed of), and the fashion world has moved on.
Except, of course, it hasn't. Someone is killing the world's greatest pop stars (launching the story by taking out Justin Bieber more violently than how Sonny Corleone got it at the toll booth was easily the movie's most inspiring idea), and Interpol's fashion division, led by former swimsuit model-turned cop Valentina (Penelope Cruz), is investigating.
Good guys and bad guys both have their reasons for wanting Derek and Hansel to come out of retirement. Valentina needs them, because all the dead pop stars expired with one of Derek's patented "looks" on their faces. The bad guys, led by Mugatu and evil fashionista Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, in an overbaked performance that seems wholly unnecessary), want them for reasons dating back to the beginning of time.
Derek is on a quest to get back his son, whom the authorities had taken away as a toddler because of Derek's horrific parental skills. He reunites with Hansel, who is trying to find himself, and the adventure begins -- fueled by many of the same gags that have gone stale over 15 years.
The film does have a few funny moments -- Benedict Cumberbatch is genius as All, the world's new, great, genderless supermodel. Sutherland is hilariously sensitive as a member of Hansel's "orgy," his group of co-habitators that include all genders and ages and even a goat. One particularly funny scene involves Hansel's old orgy stumbling upon him in a precarious situation with a group that includes Willie Nelson and a baby hippo.
Beyond that, "Zoolander No. 2" is just a redo of the first movie and induces the same eye-rolling disappointment many of us felt watching Mike Myers run the Austin Powers concept into the ground. At least it's still easy to kind of like Derek and Hansel. But Ferrell's Mugatu is absolutely painful to watch and hear; it seems he had to compensate for not knowing where to take the character by making him as loud and obnoxious as possible.
Somehow, the last 10 minutes manage to bring some laughs, as if Stiller and company put all their energy into a last-gasp grab for giggles. There's even a fun little twist. Let's hope the ending will leave Stiller satisfied enough to never feel the need to make "Zoolander No. 3."
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'Zoolander No. 2'
Rating: PG-13 (crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence and brief strong language)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig
Director: Ben Stiller
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Opens: Feb. 12 in wide release