I had great hopes for Zoolander, Ben Stiller's comedic swipe at male models and the male models who love them ' i.e., themselves. The fashion industry's a huge target that's already full of holes (although Robert Altman managed to miss the whole side of the barn in Ready to Wear), but there's always room for more if one's aim is true enough. And Stiller proved he knew how to zero in on our society's various foibles with "The Ben Stiller Show," which had a brief run on MTV before Stiller became the poster boy for kick-me comedy in such movies as There's Something About Mary and Meet the Parents. Stiller's also proven himself a skillful director in Reality Bites and The Cable Guy, the latter having nearly finished off his career behind the camera because it tried to show us the dark side of Jim Carrey's maniacal sense of humor. Finally, I thought Zoolander's trailer was an absolute scream.
Can you say "sucker"? The thing is, a trailer seems about the right size for what Stiller's up to here. Like all those "Saturday Night Live" movies, Zoolander tries to stretch a sketch to feature-film length, and the result had me checking my watch every 10 minutes or so. The film has other problems, but let's focus on what's good about Zoolander first. There's Zoolander himself ' Derek Zoolander (Stiller), three-time Male Model of the Year and chief benefactor of the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good. (I like the way Stiller and his co-scriptwriters spring that joke on the very last word.) To say that Derek's a bit dim is to presume there's any chance of the lights ever coming on. The male equivalent of a dumb-blonde joke, he takes shallowness to new depths, as when he addresses the Prime Minister of Malaysia as Mr. Prime Rib of Propecia. Derek can't imagine a world beyond his own hair-care products.
Except for periodic stabs at something resembling sincerity, Stiller doesn't vary his performance all that much; Derek's just as dumb at the end as he is at the beginning. But the characterization, which Stiller first unveiled at the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, pays off like a rigged slot machine. Stiller lowers his voice to a confused whisper, and he's come up with an accent that seems exactly like what someone from the coal fields of southern New Jersey would think was European. Other than that, he does all the acting with his forehead, which is constantly wrinkling and unwrinkling in concentration or lack thereof. Derek's famous for his trademark "looks" ' facial poses with names like "Blue Steel," "Le Tigre" and "Ferrari." Except, to our untutored eyes, they all seem exactly the same, a vacant stare with the cheeks sucked in slightly. Dubbed "A Model Idiot" by Time magazine, Derek can't take a whizz without striking a pose.
The plot, which has an Austin Powers feel, tries to turn Derek into an International Male of Mystery. Will Ferrell shows up as Mugatu, a Bond-ish villain with a poodle perm and a Colonel Sanders goatee. Dependent on child labor in poor countries along the Pacific Rim, an evil cabal of fashion designers has recruited Mugatu to assassinate the Malaysian prime minister, who's pledged to end the practice. Mugatu's diabolical plan: Brainwash Derek into performing the hit, Ã la Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. But how do you wash a brain that was scrubbed pretty clean to begin with? Derek also has to ward off the challenge of Owen Wilson's Hansel, a fellow supermodel who, going with hair that's mussed rather than moussed, has just replaced Derek as Male Model of the Year. Derek and Hansel work out their differences in a runway "walk-off" that's one of the highlights of the movie; never has a wedgie looked quite so painful.
As Mugatu, Ferrell is funny-looking without being funny. And Wilson, so effective in Shanghai Noon, seems either too smart or too dumb here; he hasn't thought through his character, like Stiller has. Of course, Stiller created the characters. He also directed and co-produced Zoolander, and the biggest problem with the movie is that it's both overdirected and overproduced. "Let me create a fashion magazine on film," production designer Robin Standefer supposedly told Stiller, and he probably should have said no, should have asked her to create a movie on film instead. An audiovisual onslaught, Zoolander doesn't allow much room for the jokes to breathe. Consequently, the funniest moments are when the plot's been sidelined. "I'm bulimic," a Time magazine reporter (played by Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor) tells Derek and Hansel while they're sitting around getting to know one another. To which Derek, after much wrinkling of his forehead, replies, "You mean you can read minds?"