Much has changed since 2001, when we last saw Ben Stiller in the puckered-up title role of “Zoolander.” The story of an endearingly dimwitted male model who stops an elaborate scheme to supply designers with cheap child labor, “Zoolander” was an inventive, manic spoof of the fashion industry that became a much-rented, oft-quoted classic. If you know the significance of the phrase “orange mocha Frappuccino,” you’re a fan.
“Zoolander 2” arrives in theaters with high expectations and an aggressive advertising campaign driven by the very industry it spoofs (Valentino, who appears in the film, has been a major supporter). The sequel doesn’t have the slightly savage streak of the original, nor the same level of lunacy, but Stiller, who once again co-wrote and directed, has successfully revived his best-known brand with a sequel that hits more than it misses.
In this story, Derek Zoolander and his only slightly smarter colleague, Hansel (Owen Wilson), have aged out of the fast-moving fashion world, but they’re lured back by designer Alexanya Atoz (an unrecognizable Kristen Wiig) for a show in Rome. Coincidentally, someone has been assassinating the world’s most beautiful people (including Justin Bieber, a very good sport here). Zoolander and Hansel, along with Interpol agent Valentina Valencia (Penélope Cruz), must solve the mystery.
“Zoolander 2” is basically a grab bag of jokes — some funnier than others — hung on a very slim plot. Kyle Mooney plays Don Atari, a young designer who’s so ironic that he prefers bad ideas to good ones; Zoolander’s estranged son (Cyrus Arnold) turns out to be — horrors! — slightly pudgy; and Will Ferrell once again steals the show as the insanely coifed villain Mugatu. (He’s found in a fashion-crime prison down the hall from M.C. Hammer.) The film’s saving grace is a surplus of material: When one gag doesn’t work, there’s another right behind it.
The humor hits a minor snag when Zoolander meets All, a transgender model played as a self-important snob by Benedict Cumberbatch. The character feels drawn with some hostility, and the sniggering jokes about his/her genitalia don’t land. It’s the one brief moment when our otherwise lovable hero really does seem out of touch.