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Review: In ‘Zoolander 2,’ All Is Still Vanity

From left, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller and Penelope Cruz in “Zoolander 2.”

If you took away the extravagantly gaudy trappings of the overproduced, chaotic, not very funny comic circus that is “Zoolander 2,” you would still have a surefire basic concept. Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), an airhead model forever pursing his lips, striking poses and practicing his telekinetic blue-steel glare in the mirror, is a Chaplinesque Everyman in a delusional bubble. The prevalence of outrageous male vanity was the dirty little secret in the first “Zoolander” that lent the film its satirical bite. In the 15 years that have passed since then, it is anything but a secret in a world of competing buff, preening dandies.

In Derek’s imagination — and, I would like to think, in Mr. Stiller’s on a good day — he’s a devastatingly handsome specimen with his laser-blue eyes and prominent cheekbones. One reason the character registers so strongly is that Derek suggests Mr. Stiller’s personal obsession with his looks. He knows firsthand that men, deep down, are more vain than women, that in their fantasies most men see themselves as irresistible lady-killers.

Mr. Stiller is a perfect case study in male insecurity. Depending on the role, the camera angle, the costume, and the hair and makeup, Mr. Stiller, 50, swings between polarities of trollishness and desirability. In some movies, he appears dwarfish and deformed with a head that’s too big for his body and empty space-alien eyes. He is of average height but looks shorter. And when bulked up, he appears hunched and musclebound. But when he fixes those baby blues on the camera and thrusts out his jaw to accentuate his cheekbones, he can pass as handsome: just barely.

The original “Zoolander,” in 2001, was a belated hit that caught on as a home-viewing phenomenon. Because it was a family movie, its savaging of the fashion industry could only go so far (not very) and had to stop well short of portraying fashionista depravity. The same is true of “Zoolander 2,” which doesn’t have a trace of erotic energy. A bunch of orgiasts appear ready for action, but they don’t do anything beyond making faces and lightly petting one another in an ambulatory group hug.

“Zoolander 2,” which is overstuffed with celebrity cameos, opens with its strongest sequence, in which Justin Bieber is machine-gunned to death and in his last moment posts an Instagram picture of himself sucking in his cheeks and puckering his lips in a blue-steel pout. He is a casualty of an international plot to rid the world of beautiful celebrities. (The scheme never gains traction.)

Derek, self-exiled to the Arctic wastes of northern New Jersey, is coaxed out of his retreat by Billy Zane (playing himself), who also retrieves Hansel (Owen Wilson), Derek’s former best friend and rival, from the wilds of Malibu. They are dispatched to Rome, where Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, unrecognizable) rules the fashion world as a Donatella Versace-like fashion empress whose pretentious diction is so comically clotted as to be unintelligible. Her latest protégé, Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), is an anti-fashion hipster and sour little twerp whose idea of a fashion-show locale is a garbage dump. Another protégé is a bald transgender supermodel (Benedict Cumberbatch) known as All.

Alexanya’s only other tic is her bizarre taste in unwearable clothes. The movie’s humor relies heavily on the outlandish creations of the costume designer, Leesa Evans, to evoke the fashion world’s insane excesses. Speaking of excess, “Zoolander 2” has enough plots for several movies. They are so jammed together that they more or less cancel each other out.

One strand among many that is half-developed concerns Derek’s reunion with his long-lost son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), a chubby, smart boy holed up in a Roman orphanage who despises his father. Derek Sr. is horrified to discover his son is overweight.

As it bumps along on a stream of mostly unfunny jokes and awkward celebrity sightings, the movie, directed by Mr. Stiller from a scatterbrained screenplay he wrote with Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg, rapidly loses its charm and turns into a silly, meaningless pseudo-spy-caper that suggests a discarded remnant of the “Austin Powers” franchise.

It picks up some steam with the late appearance of Will Ferrell returning as the nasty Mugatu, a power-mongering fashion titan whose mixture of imperious hauteur and prissiness suggests an extreme caricature of Karl Lagerfeld.

Penélope Cruz has the largely thankless role of Valentina Valencia, an agent for Interpol’s “global fashion division” investigating the murders of the world’s most beautiful celebrities. A running thread features Sting as the descendant of a bloodline that goes back to the Garden of Eden and the triumvirate of Adam and Eve and Steve. Lyrics of Police songs are a Da Vinci Code-like key that unlocks the Fountain of Youth.

The tepid satire is undercut by cameo appearance by fashion giants like Valentino, Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger and Vera Wang. Because they are in on the joke, their very presence robs the movie of any remaining edge.

“Zoolander 2” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for vaguely suggestive sexual content and a little strong language. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

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