What a difference a decade and a half makes.
When it arrived in theaters just weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “Zoolander” bombed at the box office, viewers presumably deciding that it was too soon to laugh at its title character: a vacuous male model running amok during New York Fashion Week.
Eventually, though, a cult developed around the formulaic but occasionally inspired parody, which wound up providing an improbably potent catharsis for audiences who needed reminding of what they loved to hate about New York at its most preening, self-important and shallow.
Fifteen years later, “Zoolander 2” — like its predecessor, directed by and starring Ben Stiller — has finally rolled up, primed to take full advantage of a very different zeitgeist. Who better than Derek Zoolander, the fatuous but good-hearted narcissist who worked for months perfecting the same piercing blue-eyed stare and pooched-out pout, to personify post-9/11 culture at its most vapid and self-regarding? Who better than his best frenemy, the tow-headed New Age poseur Hansel (Owen Wilson), to help send up a society greedily gorging itself, 24/7, on reality TV and selfies?
Sadly, the promised zings and arrows never fly in “Zoolander 2,” which with the exception of a mildly clever opening sequence, steadfastly avoids pointed satire in an attempt simply to cash in, tread water and peace out. Lazily written by Stiller and three collaborators (including Justin Theroux), this is the kind of lame, warmed-over movie that gives sequels a bad name. For “Zoolander” fans, however, it resembles a betrayal of public trust.
After a slapdash attempt at bringing the audience and its own characters up to speed, “Zoolander 2” finds Derek living in moody seclusion, having sworn off modeling after a tragic mishap. When he’s contacted by a beloved figure from the first installment, he travels to Rome, where he’s been invited to walk in the show of a gibberish-spouting hipster designer called Don Atari (Kyle Mooney). Unexpectedly joined by the equally dimwitted Hansel, who’s escaping a delicate personal quandary back home, Derek becomes embroiled in an international plot that’s being investigated by a gorgeous Interpol agent (Penelope Cruz) who is, quite literally, the fashion police. Together, Derek and Hansel fight their way back from obsolescence, an instance of art-imitating-life within a film that seems resolutely uninterested in its own relevance.
For timeliness, “Zoolander 2” depends on its plethora of cameo appearances, which quickly become the raison d’etre for a movie content to coast on cheap gags, self-referential callbacks and broad physical slapstick. No un-sporting spoilers here, just the observation that the brief star appearances come and go with the metronomic torpor of exhausted laborers changing shifts. Hello, Kristen Wiig fooling around with a vowel-transposing accent. Goodbye, Benedict Cumberbatch playing an enigmatic supermodel named All. Next!
Like every other character, All is lost in “Zoolander 2.” The same could be said for the potential to seize an otherwise deliciously lampoonable moment.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains crude and sexual content,
a scene of exaggerated violence and brief strong obscenity. 102 minutes.