The world has changed since Zoolander helped America laugh again after 9/11. A good deal of its new sequel tries to pan humor out of grappling with this. As the movie begins, protagonist Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller, also co-writer and director) and his rival-turned-bestie Hansel (Owen Wilson) have isolated themselves over the last 14 years due to a tragedy that befell them a mere two days after the first movie left off. But both are drawn back into the high-glamor, low-IQ world of male modeling after a series of celebrities are murdered, each one snapping a selfie in which they flash Derek’s signature “Blue Steel” look as they die. With the assistance of new love interest Melanie Valentina (Penelope Cruz), an Interpol Fashion Police agent, the pair seek to unravel the mystery.

Since this is a new Frat Pack joint (standbys John Hamburg, Nick Stoller, and Justin Theroux also worked on the script), the story is tangled in several other subplots and many more diversions into pure silliness. Derek also wants to reconnect with his son (Cyrus Arnold), while Hansel struggles with committing to a relationship with his eleven-member polyamorous collective, all of whom are pregnant (including the males). Derek’s archenemy Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell) has another evil plot running. And then, of course, there is Derek and Hansel confronting an industry that seems to have left them behind for odd new frontiers of hipsterdom and gender ambiguity. The movie’s cheap “do you have a hot dog or a bun” jokes on the latter subject grate, especially since they come from the sexually unbound Hansel. The movie avers from more general youth-hating, although that may be a symptom of its disinterest in maintaining a focus on anything in particular.

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Zoolander was much more plot-driven than later movies from the dick-joke-and/or-light-absurdism collective, and the sequel strangely incorporates more of the loosey-gooseyness of, say, an Anchorman while also attempting to have an actual story with character arcs and plot twists and such. The result is a mess of odd false starts and long stretches of pointlessness. None of this would be too bothersome if the film were funny enough. It’s not, so it is, and, well, here we are.

The slapdash approach to slapstick and general goofballery makes Zoolander 2 come out more in the realm of one of the Friedberg/Seltzer ___ Movie weaksauce parody series than anything else. That’s the effect of so many meaningless, unfunny cameos and bizarre pop culture references (one of the movie’s first jokes is a shout-out to The Boxtrolls of all things). The laughs thankfully come at a much greater rate than this comparison suggests, but the filmmaking is sadly not much better than the image it conjures. Operating on much slicker budgets than the original film, this one frequently goes for faux visual grandeur and action movie rhythms as a source of laughs. It’s an aim I admire, but the editing is so bad that the joke usually collapses. Stunningly, the movie even messes up stuff as basic as shot-reverse-shot, often holding a beat after a character speaks for a weirdly long amount of time before cutting. The result is an long parade of mugging that’s far more awkward than it is amusing.

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Despite all this unfortunateness, Zoolander 2 still hits a decent count of guffaws and chortles, enough to make for a solid rental or something you settle on while channel surfing on an idle afternoon. It makes an appreciably ambitious effort to expand the cartoony fashion world built in the first film, concocting increasingly silly lore and rules by which it abides. Leesa Evans’ costume work is heroic, doing more work than the actors themselves usually are to sell the pervasive, ridiculously over-the-top style. And this team can still pull off an appreciably surprising non-sequitur like nobody’s business. But everyone who balked at the idea of a Zoolander sequel has nonetheless been proven for the most part correct.

Zoolander 2 opens wide on Friday, February 12.

Grade: C-

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