Zoolander (2001)

D: Ben Stiller
S: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson

Goofy, cartoonish comedy expanded to feature length from the VH1 shorts originated by director Ben Stiller (There's Something About Mary) and co-writer Drake Sather. Derek Zoolander is the world's most famous male model, and he is dumber than a brick. That's about it for the plot, which is basically one endless in-joke: a lampoon of the fashion scene which does not hit them particularly hard. The film is loud and colourful and the humour is broad, demanding an affectionate response to its brain-dead hero which keeps the audience on his level as well as on his side.

Alarmingly though, the script touches on serious issues which might well have made it into something quite different. The story gets underway as Zoolander is unwittingly recruited by the higher orders of the fashion industry to assassinate the president of Malaysia. Their motivation for ordering the killing is to protect themselves economically from the evolution of fair trade in third world countries. This narrative thread has surprising polemical resonance, which, if applied correctly and matched with a cinematic sensibility which could cope with it, could well have generated political anger and satire. Another awkward moment is when evil design guru Will Ferrell (A Night at the Roxbury) unveils his latest line; "Derelicte", which is inspired by the clothes worn by the homeless. The viewer is struck by a mixture of horror and bemusement. Can this be funny? Should we be laughing? Can he do that? Such a sense of unease is often the inspiration for true subversiveness. Alas, having introduced this kind of material, Stiller and Co. move the film away from it, concentrating instead on over the top mayhem in the Dumb and Dumber tradition.

Viewed as mayhem, Zoolander is relatively painless. It runs for less than an hour and a half, features a bevvy of talented performers who deliver entertaining performances. Christine Taylor (The Wedding Singer) is a Time magazine reporter trying to make sense of this senseless world, Owen Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums) is a rival supermodel who eventually teams up with them to defeat the villains. Actual model Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) has a pretty unglamorous role as a cartoonish villainess, a barely recognisable David Duchovny (The X-Files Movie) does a weird variant on 'deep throat'. Director Ben's dad Jerry Stiller is a faintly offensive agent, and, amazingly, Jon Voight (The General) turns up in a tiny, fairly demeaning role as Zoolander's coal-mining father who is ashamed of his son's career.

The film does not take itself seriously at all, and should probably not be judged by conventional cinematic standards, but it really has relatively little to offer. Its retreat from its own darker side is made all the more craven by the amount of product placement and celebrity cameos. In spite of a palpable sense of grotesquerie and excess, the film is ultimately a celebration of its own emptiness which invites sympathy, not disgust. It ultimately goes for cheap laughs designed to entertain an undemanding audience, and many of its gags repeated ad nauseum. Stiller's quasi-parodic facial expressions are fun for a while, but when an entire sub-plot turns on them, the joke wears a little thin. Bizarre asides spoofing scenes from A Clockwork Orange and The Godfather depend upon a willing audience, and though it has one or two scenes which are strange enough to have their own comic energy, it is most likely to work when viewed in a state of inebriation or intoxication of some kind, preferably herbally-induced.

Visually, Robin Standefer's production designs and David C. Robinson's costumes are the stars. Stiller apes the vacuous style of fashion TV quite effectively (especially in the early scenes and in the 'walk-off' where he and Owen compete on a private catwalk in the manner of gunfighters at a showdown), but the eye is more drawn to the bright and wacky sets and costumes than to anything accomplished with the camera.

The entire film is lightweight, of course, so no one expects to be dazzled, but by the time it ends it is difficult not to feel that a great amount of resources have been squandered on a movie which definitely has something in it to hold the attention of cult-hungry audiences but which could have been done in half the time. In spite of a truncated orgy scene featuring midgets and monks, the film could probably have been more grotesque and twisted. This might have given it greater force and made the viewer mesh the worlds of economic and political exploitation with sexual and personal decadence on the scale of a 1970s European art film. As is, the mixture of uncomfortably realistic political content and a dependence on inanity makes it merely a postmodern vessel making predictable noises.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.