For “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” the third installment of the franchise in 2002, a bounty of big-name celebrities, from Tom Cruise to Katie Couric to Danny DeVito to John Travolta to Gwyneth Paltrow, made some hilarious cameos.
Such a gimmick was hardly a new idea even then — but “Goldmember” co-writer and star Mike Myers and director Jay Roach executed the celebrity cameo drive-by with precise comedic timing. There was a PURPOSE to these famous faces appearing in the movie.
Cut to 2016 and “Zoolander 2,” director/co-writer/star Ben Stiller’s follow-up to the 2001 fashion world satire, which was a mild hit (domestic box office gross of $45 million) upon its release but became something of a cult favorite over the years. (To this day, some millennials will dress up for Halloween as Stiller’s Derek Zoolander or Owen Wilson’s Hansel or Will Ferrell’s Mugatu.)
The celebrity cameo factor in “Zoolander 2” is off the charts. Some of the biggest names in pop music and some of the most famous actors in the world appear in the film — either playing themselves or doing brief turns as outlandish characters. Hardly a scene goes by without another celebrity popping up, giving us the chance to say, “Hey, there’s [fill in the blank]!”
Problem is, with only a very few exceptions, there’s nothing particularly original or funny about these famous folks dropping in. Often, the visual sight gags or the one-liners fall flat with a resounding thud.
Even in a goofy, stupid, outrageous satire, it helps if the characters in the movie are somehow integral to the progress of the story — silly as that story may be. Here, what little momentum the movie has is often stopped in its tracks.
CELEBRITY CAMEO SPOILER ALERT!
(Although the ads for the film give this away anyhow.)
The opening sequence of “Zoolander 2,” directed by Stiller in the style of serious international spy thrillers, serves notice we’re in for a bumpy ride.
A guy in a hoodie who turns out to be Justin Bieber is on the run on conveniently deserted streets, with two assassins on motorcycles attempting to gun him down. When one of the killers corners Bieber, the end result is overplayed and overwrought and overlong. Maybe because Bieber is such a polarizing figure — strike that, maybe because Bieber is so loathed by many — we’re supposed to view the scene as fantasy wish fulfillment and perhaps applaud Bieber for going along with it, but the whole thing just feels like a calculated PR stunt.
“Zoolander 2” is set more than a decade after a horrific disaster injured Zoolander’s best friend and fellow modeling legend Hansel (Owen Wilson) and left Zoolander widowed and a single father. Now estranged from his son — no surprise, this dim bulb was a spectacularly awful parent — Zoolander is living in “extreme Northern New Jersey” as a “hermit crab,” as he puts it. (Zoolander’s tenuous grasp of the language is a running and mostly groan-inducing joke in the film.)
Meanwhile, Hansel is a recluse as well, living on the West Coast with a group of men and women and animals he calls “Orgy,” i.e., two years ago they all had an orgy and now they’re living together. OK.
The two forgotten icons of the male modeling world are reunited in Rome when Penelope Cruz’s Melanie Valentina, who works for the “Fashion Police” division of Interpol, believes they’re the keys to solving a series of murders of some of the world’s biggest pop stars.
That’s pretty much the deal. Stiller the director does a fine job of making “Zoolander 2” look like an actual spy movie, but we’ve seen far better takeoffs, including “Spy” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service” in just the last couple of years. As for the jabs at the transient nature of popular culture and the ridiculousness of high fashion world — easy, tired targets.
Given most of us couldn’t name a single male model in the history of male modeling, the premise of “Zoolander” always seemed better suited to a skit or a short film than a feature length film. (In fact, the Derek Zoolander character was conceived for short films that played during the VH1 Fashion Awards in the 1990s.)
Some people find Derek Zoolander funny and likable and endearingly dumb. I don’t. I find him grating. Zoolander is a stunningly stupid and shallow person who recoils in horror when he learns his long-lost son is overweight, or as he calls him, “fat,” and even though we’re clearly supposed to be laughing at Zoolander and not with him, he’s still an obtuse jerk. If you find Zoolander’s mannered style of speaking and his narcissism and his monumentally tiny brain hilarious, I can’t argue with you. I’m just not with ya.
It takes a long time for Will Ferrell’s insanely evil Jacobim Mugatu to make an appearance, and credit to Ferrell for livening things up and scoring some of the biggest laugh lines in the film when he insults some famous fashion designers.
But it’s far too little, far too late.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Ben Stiller and written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nick Stoller and John Hamburg. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.