Zoolander (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Under normal circumstances, Zoolander is the kind of movie I would recommend giving a pass to in theaters and waiting for the video release. But these are far from normal circumstances. In the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, audiences are looking for distractions, so anything that offers opportunities for laughter, no matter how uneven or scattered those opportunities may be, cannot be immediately dismissed. Thus it is for Zoolander. This is by no means a great (or even a very good) comedy, but there are times when it tickles the funny bone, and, for that reason if no other, it may be the right film for this time.

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is the king of the male modeling world. The winner of three straight Model of the Year awards, Derek stands ready to claim his fourth, until he is unseated by upstart newcomer Hansel (Owen Wilson), whose freshness and versatility outmatch Derek's trademark "blue steel" stare. To add insult to injury, the same week that Derek loses his perch atop the fashion world, Time magazine publishes a derogatory article about him, written by pretty Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), whom Derek had given full access to his life. When his three best friends are killed in a freak accident, Derek decides he has had enough. He's going to give up modeling and devote himself to charity, building a school for "children who can't read good". But in steps Derek's agent, Maury Ballstein (Jerry Stiller), and fashion mogul Mugatu (Will Ferrell) with a deal to convince him otherwise. Mugatu claims that he wants Derek to be the model for his new "Derelicte" collection, but what he really desires is a "beautiful, self-absorbed simpleton" whom he can brainwash and turn into an assassin. Mugatu needs to find someone to kill the latest Prime Minister of Malysia, because the new ruler is determined to institute laws limiting child labor, an act that will wreck Mugatu's empire.

With a premise like the one embraced by Zoolander, a viewer could be forgiven for expecting the storyline to represent a barbed lampoon of the shallow fashion industry. However, while the film contains elements of satire, it is much gentler and less edgy than one might anticipate, parodying only the most obvious aspects of modeling (the "easy targets"). Instead, much of the comedy is of the Dumb and Dumber variety, with the naivete of a moron being played for laughs. Derek is obsessed with his looks, has trouble pronouncing any word with more than two syllables, doesn't know his left from his right, and sometimes has trouble completing sentences. Not all of the humor makes fun of Derek's stupidity; there are some clever things to be found in Zoolander as well. One ongoing gag is that Derek's vaunted "blue steel" look is about as silly an expression as Stiller could come up with. And there are in-jokes (for example, Stiller, an avowed Star Trek fan, named "Mugatu" after a creature from the late-'60s TV series) for those who care to look for them.

One of the primary problems with Zoolander is that it doesn't have enough material to fill the running length. Even at a short 85 minutes, the movie seems padded. There are some very entertaining sequences - such as the awards show, the runway "walk-off" duel, and the breakdance fight - but there are also dead patches where there's too much exposition and too little humor. Zoolander's laugh-aloud moments redeem much of the movie, but they also leave us wishing the comedy had been more consistent. From a visual standpoint, Zoolander is a riot of colors, and the use of some of the '80s least intellectually stimulating pop hits (like "Relax") injects a little extra intentional campiness.

For Ben Stiller, Zoolander is a family affair. In addition to directing, co-producing, and co-writing the film, Stiller is also in front of the camera for nearly every scene. His father, Jerry, has a supporting role as a crooked agent with big balls (his name being "Ballstein") and a bigger prostate. Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor (who viewers may remember as Marcia in the two Brady Bunch movies), is Derek's love interest, Matilda. As Hansel, Owen Wilson vies to out-do Stiller in the vacuousness department. And Will Ferrell dons strange clothes and a stranger wig as Mugato. There are also cameos from the likes of Jon Voight, Cuba Gooding Jr., Gary Shandling, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, David Bowie, Fabio, David Duchovny, and Billy Zane.

Despite its numerous weaknesses, Zoolander is more enjoyable than many of 2001's crop of so-called comedies. For one thing, it's actually funny, even if only sporadically so. And, with all the open wounds of the past few weeks, if laughter is a cure, then it's hard to argue the medicinal value of something like Zoolander.

Zoolander (United States, 2001)

Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Jerry Stiller, Milla Jovovich
Screenplay: Drake Sather & Ben Stiller and John Hamburg
Cinematography: Barry Peterson
Music: BT
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2001-09-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1