Some history, first of all: Zoolander was released on September 28, 2001, two and a half weeks after 9/11, the first big comedy to hit theaters after the attacks (in fact, when New York affiliate WNYW went live to cover a plane crash at the South Tower, they cut into a Zoolander commercial). It was a strange moment for a big, broad, dumb comedy to go into the world, filled as we were with questions about whether irony was dead and what was funny now and so on – questions broached by the film’s most notoriously scathing review, a one-star scorched-earth job from Roger Ebert. It is, for my money, a rare all-out misread from Uncle Roger, but wherever you stand on the movie, the review is a fascinating, tangible snapshot of exactly how discombobulated our pop culture consciousness was in the weeks after that seismic shift.
“To some degree, Zoolander is a victim of bad timing,” Ebert wrote, “although I suspect I would have found the assassination angle equally tasteless before Sept. 11.” (Stiller said Ebert later apologized for the review, telling the director/star, “Everything was a little crazy. It was September 11 and I went overboard.”) But the specter of the event hung over Stiller’s movie; it got less press for its laughs than for Stiller’s decision to digitally remove the Twin Towers from New York skyline shots. (Films like Serendipity, Kissing Jessica Stein, and People I Know followed suit.) It was ultimately a box office disappointment, opening in second place and topping out at $45 million domestic. It didn’t find its (cult-ish) audience until home video and streaming, an audience which ultimately willed this lukewarm sequel into being. But in its own odd way it became, as Forbes’ Scott Mendelson put it, “a defining 9/11 film.”
Point is, Ben Stiller probably isn’t that wild about September 11th. (Y’know, even less than the rest of us.) At least, that’s the only explanation I can summon for why the second sequence in Zoolander 2 is basically an extended 9/11 joke. It goes like this: as part of a catch-up montage of the years between the films, we discover that the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too was, in fact, built in Lower Manhattan, on the banks of the East River — where it collapsed spectacularly, killing Derek’s wife Matilda and disfiguring Hansel. There are quick-cut news images of emergency responders on the scene; the home video footage of the building collapse in lower Manhattan is date-stamped October 5, 2001. Are you laughin’ yet?
It’s not that 9/11 can’t make for a good joke, tasteful or otherwise; ask Gilbert Gottfried. But this is, simply put, one of the most inexplicable sequences I’ve seen in a studio comedy – mostly because it’s so hard to figure out what the joke is, beyond some sort of juvenile, “Oh, he went there” nonsense. (Whatever the gag may be, it was met with stony silence at my screening.) Throughout its running time, Zoolander 2 reconfirms the conventional wisdom that no genre is as hard to sequel-ize as comedy, since surprise is such a basic element of what makes us laugh, and once you’ve lost that, there’s not much left. (As if to prove the point, the only consistently funny feature of the new film is Kristen Wiig’s gloriously bizarre characterization of a fashion bigwig with a hilariously impenetrable accent; it’s the only thing we haven’t seen before.) So the best explanation I can come up with is this: once he’d checked off all the boxes for the repeated gags and quotes and set pieces, the one thing Stiller still had to do to recreate Zoolander a decade and a half later was cook up a 9/11 controversy.
It’s a dumb theory, I’ll admit. But no dumber that anything else in Zoolander 2.
Zoolander 2 is out Friday in wide release.