Someone is killing the biggest music celebrities around, and pop singer Justin Bieber is just the latest casualty, gunned down in the Rome night by a motorcycle assassin as he was trying to seek sanctuary in the house of Sting. Interpol are onto this mystery, and one of their top agents, Valentina Valencia (Penélope Cruz), is in charge of the investigation, noting well that the deceased stars' final act was to send a selfie to a trusted associate, pulling an expression that looked highly familiar to anyone who had been around fifteen years before. It is clear to Valentina that they were impersonating the long-forgotten supermodel Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) - but for what possible purpose?
The first Zoolander was a bit of a flop, something which picked up its audience on home video after a disappointing run at the cinemas. Its relentless absurdity was to strike the funny bone of a generation of comedy buffs, and to this day it enjoys a strong cult following, which it is doubtful the belated sequel would have. Stiller by this point had got into a state of thinking that saw his films have as much money thrown at them as possible: Tropic Thunder had been a pretty substantial hit, and that had cost a fortune, but his remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty had not performed as well, though if anything it was even more expensive. Zoolander 2 might have been more effective on the budget of the original.
As it was, the public rejected it and it was not difficult to see why, for while the initial time around there was a sense of Stiller and his chums making fun of something from an outsider's perspective, goodnaturedly but with a keen notion of what was making these characters ridiculous, in this sequel they were very much the insiders, and that did make a difference. You don't necessarily have to appreciate the targets of your humour from one remove, after all self-deprecating jokes can be very amusing and even endearing, but there was little attempt to accept those of us in the audience into this inner circle of celebrity, which proved fatal for any potential laughter they were hoping to generate.
What Zoolander 2 resembled was an extremely profligate home movie where Stiller had recruited a wide variety of celebrities who were the in thing in 2016 (well, mostly) and ordered them to show what good sports they were. Fair enough, not a bad idea in itself, but when the impression was that they were winking at each other rather than any of us plebs watching the actual film, it was not difficult to grow excluded, alienated even, from the shenanigans playing out before you. First time around, Derek was demonstrably stupid and there was something glorious about that; second time around he was so stupid he was actually pretty smart in this exaggerated world of ludicrous events, and the only possible road they could have gone down to succeed in that line was to make us realise that everyone here was quite possibly insane.
Nobody here behaves particularly sensibly, so to create a plot where they went increasingly off their rockers until they were acting utterly crazily could have succeeded, though that might have been just as alienating for the majority. Nevertheless, there was a complacency to the gags here that occasionally raised a laugh or two (Derek taking a disastrous selfie while driving his car, Benedict Cumberbatch's new breed of supermodel daring Derek to feel uncomfortable when he cannot identify his gender), but the decision to go way over the top was showing the strain. The plot was so convoluted it was barely worth paying attention to, but involved the return of Will Ferrell's villain in the last act and our hero's estranged son (Cyrus Arnold) he was trying to connect with after years of seclusion, teaming up once again with Owen Wilson's Hansel to save, well, save what, exactly? Even for a silly comedy the stakes were unclear, leaving you simply sitting back and going, oh, look who it is, another celeb in lieu of a decent joke. Stiller had been working on lower budgets in other's movies, very well, but battering the audience into submission with glitz was failing by this point. Music by Theodore Shapiro.