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Zoolander   B+ / D

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Drake Sather, Ben Stiller, John Hamburg
Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Milla Jovovich, Jerry Stiller, David Duchovny, Jon Voight.

Review by Rob Vaux

Context is everything. If Zoolander had been released a month ago, I would have praised it to the stars as a wonderful romp. I would have applauded Ben Stiller's hysterically dim-witted title character and guffawed at the fun-filled zaniness he finds himself in. I would have admired the film's sharp satirical edge and the deft touch with which Stiller takes on acting, writing, and directing duties. But all of that would have been before September 11. Now, things are different. The setting, the jokes, even some of the character backgrounds, inadvertently draw attention to the way our lives have changed in the past three weeks. Zoolander, through no fault of its own, falls victim to the worst possible timing.

It's a pity, too. Taken on its own, it stands as one of the funniest films of the year. Stiller takes an Austin Powers-style approach to the very broad target of male supermodels, with hysterical results. Shallow, vain, and self-absorbed to the point of implosion, these dewy-eyed überwaifs rule their own little world from the runways and photoshoots of New York. The current king of the cage is human test-pattern Derek Zoolander (Stiller), three-time VH1 Male Model of the Year, and quite possibly the stupidest man on earth. But though his life seems like a neverending GQ cover, the Zoo Man has a lot on his tiny little brain. Up-and-coming rival Hansel (Owen Wilson, resplendent in Zen Nitwit mode) is gunning for his action, his coal miner father (Jon Voight) has disowned him, and the prime minister of Malaysia is going to attend his next show. To make matters worse, an evil conglomerate of fashion magnates (led by the hideously unfunny Will Ferrell) wants to assassinate the PM before he can enact new child labor laws and put their sweatshops out of business. They need a Manchurian Candidate to pull the trigger, someone "extremely dimwitted" who they can brainwash into a killer. One guess who they pick.

Stiller attacks this material with the ferocity of a great white shark. With the same sort of quirky intelligence that marked his Ben Stiller Show, he punctures the narcissistic pop culture that elevates the Zoolanders of the world into gods. In this micro-universe, prima donna fashion designers push clothing lines patterned after the homeless, and hand models keep their livelihood encased in hyperbolic oxygen chambers. Stiller throws gag after gag out with boldness and wit, keeping his basic premise going long after it should have collapsed in on itself. He gets help from huge slew of cameos, and some spot-on casting featuring the likes of David Duchovny and Milla Jovovich (Jovovich does particularly well as a vampish Natasha Fatale clone). He and Wilson have wonderful comic chemistry together, striding through their personal kingdom and content that the sun shines only for them.

Therein lies the unfortunate problem. Though obviously satirical, Zoolander also dwells on cultural trivialities that seem dishearteningly irrelevant at the moment. It compounds the issue by its New York setting, and by other details that remind us of the recent tragedy. Some films could shoulder that burden much more easily (Don't Say a Word, also set in New York, avoids the same connotations), but Zoolander has the inadvertent habit of rubbing the sore spot. The film is peppered with sweeping skyline shots of New York City, tastefully omitting the World Trade Center but evoking it just the same. The film's Girl Friday heroine (played by Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor) works for Time magazine -- presumably to make a point about how inane the media has become -- which again raises the specter of the things we've lost. Most distressing is a bit involving Zoolander's male model roommates, who accidentally immolate themselves after a playful episode at the gas station. The sequence is a scream, but the sight of a huge explosion -- followed by Zoolander's vacuous eulogy with New York in the background -- may cause more shudders than laughs. None of this is the filmmakers' fault, of course; set apart, these elements probably wouldn't even register. But taken as a whole, they cast an inescapable pall over their otherwise admirable effort.

Reaction to Zoolander truly depends on your state of mind. Some will consider it a tonic for the past few weeks: a light-hearted respite from the grim reality in which we find ourselves. If that's the case, you won't find a better piece of escapism right now. But I couldn't look at that New York skyline without wincing; I couldn't bring myself to laugh at wacky mayhem set in a city still burying its dead. It broke my heart to watch it and not giggle hysterically like I should have. This is a funny movie, crafted by smart people who just wanted to make us smile. Unfortunately, they can't keep the outside world from pouring in. Several films have already been delayed in the wake of September 11th. Zoolander would have benefited immeasurably from a similar decision. It's a fine piece of fiddling, but frankly, I'd rather concentrate on the fire.

Review published 10.01.2001.

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