In one of the most tantalizing teasers in recent memory, a Hawkings-esq digitized voice rattles off a number of grand questions which have puzzled philosophers and laymen alike since time immemorial, finally arriving on the (allegedly) deepest question of all: “If God exists, why did He create ugly people?” – asked, of course, by Derek Zoolander.
Upon first seeing such in the theater, my friends all immediately turned to me. As a seminary-trained theologian with a bachelors in Philosophy and a special interest in aesthetics, I’m among very few individuals who’d treat such an inflammatory inquiry with serious study, and had in fact raised the issue in earnest on numerous occasions, pointing to it as an instance of the Problem of Evil. As the punchline of a joke, it’s clear that the writers thought it absurd to the point of laughable. That the narcissistic Zoolander is asking it indicates the apparent absurdity is not in regards to the existence of a deity but rather his attitude towards physically unattractive individuals.
Zoolander 2 as a film asks a slightly modified version of that question. Though never articulated as such, underlying every scene is this: “How can one reconcile intuitive aesthetic apprehensions with the contradictory claims of culture?” Zoolander and his male model cohorts are the perfect vehicle to examine such.
As male models, they are expected to inhere the attributes associated with masculine beauty, prompting the question foundational to the field of aesthetics: What is Beauty? Is it “in the eye of the beholder (subjective)? Is it “only skin deep” (objective but superficial)? Or is “beauty truth, truth beauty” (objective and a good in itself)?
Moreover, models exist as living mannequins on which designers display their latest fashions. Fashion is, by definition, seasonal, subject to taste and time. Unlike Beauty, it is always and only a product of culture. As such, any exploration of fashion is always in the context of the culture that surrounded it. Such is the primary source of this comedy’s humor, more so than even the acute asininity of the protagonists and obtuse obliviousness of their world’s denizens. The foibles and failings of every subculture seen are translated to and telegraphed by their specific sartorial stylings.
Case in point: early on in the film, as Zoolander and Hansel first re-don their respective Manhattanite and Malibu takes on haute couture, hipster designer Don Atari appears flabbergasted by the outdatedly ostentatious apparel. High fashion shuns style for spectacle, parading its pomp and impracticality in order to elevate its elitist detachment from the hoi polloi. Such detachment is the one commonality between all members of this subculture in the film, from Zoolander’s time in seclusion as a “hermit crab” to a cult of human sacrificing industry icons.
Atari, alternatively, is seen sporting a graphic tee, printed on which is a technicolor render of Derek’s face and his “classic catchphrase”: “Let’s call Billy Zane” – uttered by Zoolander in private only once and only minutes earlier. Atari, allegedly “so hot right now,” is every stereotype of hipster culture short of spurious spectacles and a lumberjack’s mane. He’s insolent, impertinent, incessantly ironic – but all only to mask obvious insecurities through insincerity. His dress and designs lack the bold bravado of the couture he belittles because he himself lacks boldness. Thus all his mutterings are always mumbled.
Shortly after Zoolander meet his, Atari introduces Zoolander to All, a cross-dressing Benedict Cumberbatch of initially ambiguous biological sex spouting novel neologisms as self-identifying gender labels. “‘All’ is all” claims All, as if in clarification of Zoolander’s bewilderment. Throughout the scene, Atari is insistent that not only is All beautiful, but that All’s “beauty” is obvious and intuitive, pressuring Derek and Hansel for verbal agreement of such. They timidly concur, but the disgust on their faces is clearly intended to engender solidarity with the sensibilities of most general audiences. That All is “stunning and brave” by fiat is a clear and clever dig at the confusing waters of post-Jenner gender politics viewers have suddenly found themselves navigating.
Such a counter-cultural critique is largely absent from the remainder of the film, which espouses the current orthodoxy regarding beauty and “body-image.” Much of the film focuses on Zoolander’s obese offspring Derek Jr. He’s as uncomely as kids come, causing Zoolander to exclaim, “Does the fact that he’s fat make him a bad person? I’m really asking!” Hansel earnestly replies, “Well, I know it doesn’t make him a good person.” Unlike in the case of All, the context here calls for the audience to find fault with the feelings of the leads, or at least see such sentiments as a starting point for character growth in the opposite direction.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the film ultimately asserts the modernist mantra that “big is beautiful,” itself a subset of the notion that true sexiness comes from confidence and self-assuredness, or that pulchritude is passed out as a participation trophy to every runner in the human race. This is absurd. It is the delusion of a democratic society applying political principles of equality to aspects of society in which egalitarianism is obviously inapplicable. Just as there really are individuals with genius intellect and individuals with severe learning disabilities, so too are there individuals whose beauteousness is cross-culturally clear and those homely to the whole of humanity.
I say this as one of the aforementioned beautiful people. My roguishly rugged countenance has afforded me amorous attentions and plentiful paramours beyond the opportunities of most men. I’ve broken off relationships with models and millionaires alike. But beauty is not binary, not a matter of “hot or not.”
Most recently, I had a few dates with a dazzling damsel out of even my league, a veritable (and literal) Disney princess. At the end of the first evening, while walking her back to her apartment after dining at a local hipster hotspot, somehow the subject of Justin Bieber arose (I believe in reference to the restaurant inserting one of his songs amidst their usual mix of Imagine Dragons and the like). She began to rhapsodize about how pretty the androgynous artist is. I ought to have harbored some jealousy, her attraction towards him clearly eclipsing any chemistry I’d cultivated between her and myself. Yet I had the objectivity to admit despite my ego that Bieber’s my better in that regard. Attractiveness is scalar, and I’m not so narcissistic as to imagine myself at the absolute far end of the bell curve. Yet such is essentially the proposition of the current culture in general and Zoolander 2 in particular, that that exclusive top percentile is accessible to the plain and plus-sized of the planet.
Needless to say, given that the inamorata in question ended our brief association days before, I did find it somewhat cathartic and vindictive when a fictionalized version of Justin Bieber, played by himself, is assassinated in the opening minutes of the film (that the next scene was set in the same white wastes of northern New Jersey in which I was watching the film nearly had me convinced from start that the movie was made with me in mind). Bieber is just one of dozens of celebrity cameos throughout the star-studded spectacle. That so many notable names were eager to be featured in the sequel speaks volumes to the enduring quality of the original.
And the fact of the matter is, while the follow-up lacks the freshness of the first, the comedic moments weren’t much fewer. Seeing Zoolander 2 on a preview night, I had the theater nearly to myself, without the benefit of a captive audience to enhance the experience with their own contagious laughter to infect me. And yet the cinema roared with my hearty howl from cold open to closing credits. Disagree as I may with the message and politics of Zoolander 2, as a comedy and a sequel it certainly succeeds.