The original Zoolander rested on one man's ridiculous journey, and that economy of storytelling kept the film brisk and focused, even as it got increasingly fantastical with mind control and momentum-defying looks. The sequel adds 13 minutes, a co-lead role for Wilson, and extraneous characters that are occasionally amusing (Benedict Cumberbatch's pan-gender model All) and often grating (Kyle Mooney's millenial jumble Don Atari). Taylor is switched out with Derek's obnoxious son (Cyrus Arnold), replacing the original's not-great romantic subplot with a worse paternal relationship. The secret plot behind the celebrity assassinations is blown up to a Da Vinci Code-level conspiracy, in the place of the far more contemporary political plot of the first film that made Zoolander at least resemble the real world. It suffers from the 'bigger' problem, where sequels confuse 'more' with 'better.'
The role of those celebrities is where that 'bigger' problem most comes into play. With a handful of exceptions (an earnest Kiefer Sutherland), the cameos are flattering to the point of disgust. The original poked fun at Billy Zane; now, he's an integral part of the plot. Justin Bieber gets a jokeless prologue as one of the doomed celebrities, surely writing into his contract that he should get to come off as a badass action star before dying bloodlessly. News personalities like Christine Amanpour and Don Lemon degrade themselves with fake broadcasts. Neil Degrasse Tyson loses a few points in my book for showing up. The cameo tractor beam even reaches back in time, with Susan Boyle making an appearance. I look forward to Chewbacca Mom's appearance when Zoolander 3 comes out in 2019.
All this would be forgivable if Zoolander 2 was funny. By the standards of the uproarious original, this may as well be Spotlight. Stiller and Wilson both strike out, and they're on screen for the vast majority of the movie. Neither seems to remember what made the first one funny. Will Ferrell's late entrance as villain Mugatu semi-invigorates things with a slow-motion prison reveal that somehow remains funny even after seeing it over and over again in the trailer. Wiig is also an amusing addition, a jumble of rubber-faced expressions and mispronounced words, but the comedian working the hardest in the film is eventually cast off for a callback to the original that no one asked for.
A handful of exceptions is not enough to salvage what is a soulless retread. Vast stretches of Zoolander 2 proceed in silence. The original only asked that the audience find something lovable in Derek, much like a dumb but really, really, really good-looking show dog. The sequel sets its sights higher, now asking the audience to root for this prize pup to put on its people shoes and get its human son back, while also recapitulating the original's romance with Cruz subbed in for Taylor. It's just too much for the character to withstand. There's no satire here, nothing to root for, very little humor, and therefore no need for this film to exist. At least Bieber got some sweet action shots for his reel. D