Zoolander 2 is a dirge in the form of a halfhearted comedy, and it's Benedict Cumberbatch who makes that most clear.
In one of the more memorable of the sequel's many celebrity cameos, Cumberbatch appears briefly as a genderqueer supermodel named All who has taken Derek Zoolander's (Ben Stiller) place as the hottest thing in fashion since the title character stepped out of the scene. The actor dons long hair, fur, and painted nails, his sharp-planed face made extra alien by the removal of his eyebrows. While Derek has matter-of-factly described himself as "good-looking," "really, really good-looking," or "ridiculously good-looking," All resembles the imposing ruler of a dystopian ice planet who would never deign to be described by terms so mundane. All prefers the pronoun "we" and is "not defined by binary constructs." Naturally, the first thing Derek and Hansel (Owen Wilson) do is ask if All has a "hot dog or a bun," a "wiener or a vaginer."
Derek and Hansel are idiots. That was the central joke in Zoolander back in 2001. Fifteen years later, it's nominally still the joke in Zoolander 2. The two male models emerge from tragedy and self-imposed exile into a world where All is the most in-demand face in fashion and no one is impressed by their dated stylings, which bewilders them.
At least in that first film, Derek and Hansel were more than just fools. They
were comedy loopholes, a way for a team of straight guys to mine laughs
from an industry dominated by beautiful women and gay men, by allowing themselves to be the main targets. Stiller sidestepped a lot of stereotypes and garden-variety punching down by making himself the butt of the joke, an oblivious "good-looking" doofus who never comprehended the extent to which the universe accommodated him until he encountered the possibility that the spotlight was moving on. And having Stiller and Wilson, two men whose attractiveness is decidedly not of the perfectly symmetrical, high-cheekboned variety, play these roles amplified the absurdity of how their characters were lauded.
But Zoolander 2 — which Stiller directed and co-wrote with Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg — can't bring itself to really skewer its main characters for their vapidity anymore. It has too much sympathy for their fears — of being out of the loop, keeping up with changing times, and getting left behind. Self-deprecation is easier when you're the one on top, but the fashion industry in the sequel is expressed through bits about how baffling its biggest trends are — the eco-friendly hotel made of shit, the terminally ironic hipster designer (Kyle Mooney) who talks about his love of how terrible everything is, and the thudding spoof of fashion's fondness for androgyny and gender fluidity that is All.
That Cumberbatch sequence manages to crystallize all of Zoolander 2's off-target fumblings in one easy moment. It's a messy scene in which the joke quickly slides from Derek and Hansel's cluelessness to squirmy panic, right before the three are due to hit the catwalk at a show. Sensing discomfort, the designer hones in on Derek's awkwardness, calling it into question, demanding proof of his acceptance: Does he have a problem with All? Wouldn't he be happy if his kid brought home someone like All to marry? Not that All is looking for a relationship, because All "just married hermself."
Both Zoolanders include multiple gags about their main characters' inclusive sexuality by throwing them into orgies with men, women, little people, and older folks, all of varying ethnicities. But the punchline there is Derek's and Hansel's (mostly Hansel's) well-practiced adventurousness — their desirability is absolute and understood, and what's funny is who they choose to sleep with when everyone is there for the taking. The scene with All tries uneasily to contend with an idea of beauty that isn't directly measured by who its main characters — however cosmopolitan — might want to fuck. It's a concept the movie can't get its head around. Instead, on the runway, Derek and Hansel find themselves in shirts reading "OLD" and "LAME," being whipped by a winged All swooping in from above like a figure out of the anxiety dreams of anti–political correctness trolls.
Zoolander earned its cult status by figuring out a way to make its satire absurd and sharp but never mean. It still resonates, as last year's comparisons of Yeezy Season 1 clothing line to Mugatu's Derelicte collection prove. That first film is more on point, a decade and a half on, than Zoolander 2, which feels like the product of people peering in from the outside at something they no longer understand — not fashion, but comedy about a universe in which they're no longer the center.