(SPOILERS) In which really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking, self-absorbed simpleton male model who can be manipulated like play-do Derek Zoolander is brainwashed by fiendish fashion designer Mugatu to assassinate the President of Malaysia. The only sign of Ben Stiller’s hilariously loopy fashion spoof showing its age is that some of the cameos come courtesy of now faded celebs. On the other hand, some of them (Donald Trump) seem to have circled right back round to relevance again. And, whether or not the sequel can match this (see this review), it bears emphasising that any movie directed by the comedy star is a visual tour de force.
Indeed, Stiller’s probably the best in his genre, even if he isn’t so hot right now. As an actor he’s half a decade past pulling in serious audiences (the last Night at the Museum was the least in the series at the box office, but surprised in as much as its performance was even in the same ballpark), yet he still has a very viable directorial career ahead of him, if only he sticks to playful eviscerating and skirts the sentiment. His The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remake is a gorgeous-looking movie, but absent of even a fraction of the imagination of the Danny Kaye original and the bite and inventiveness of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. Overburdened with cloying sincerity, it ran resoundingly aground, both critically and financially.
Zoolander was only a very modest performer on release, and then mostly in the US (memorably, released directly in the wake of 9/11, the Twin Towers were nervously and needlessly erased from “offending” shots). Since then, though, its legend, like Ron Burgundy’s, has burgeoned exponentially. The lack of box office appeal of the sequel may (to attempt a positive spin) merely be confirmation that the original is a true cult movie, or it may simply be a result of crushing reviews and bad word-of-mouth (but when has that ever stopped a picture from opening?)
Stiller’s pop sensibilities lead him to fashion a bright and shiny bauble screenplay (with Drake Sather and John Hamburg), one attractive enough for Bret Easton Ellis to sue, on the grounds that his three-years earlier novel Glamorama concerned a dim watt male model caught up in a terrorist plot. Whether its parodying awards promos, adverts (Derek enthusiastically pouring Diet Coke in his hair) and interview sound bites, or exploring the art of the music montage (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, leading to a freak gasoline fight accident, is particularly mirthful), his sense of timing and pacing of gags is as honed as Derek’s sculpted cheekbones. And, at 89 minutes, he knows far, far better than to labour the premise or induce weariness.
One of the doubts of any comedy of this ilk is how to sustain the simpleton at its centre; make Derek too much of an idiot and you run the risk that audiences just won’t care. Indulge him and it can turn into a mawk-fest (see Norman Wisdom’s Pitkin). Stiller gets around this by making Zoolander’s stupidity central to the entire foolishness, and then surrounds him with (mostly) people who are as stupid or eccentric as he is. The one exception is his wife Christine Taylor, gamely playing the straight woman while all around her are having a whale of a time. Such a character is entirely necessary, of course, if there’s to be any grounding of the entire absurd edifice.
Stiller’s ably supported by best buddy Owen Wilson as rival model Hansel (“That Hansel’s so hot right now”), who is very nearly as stupid as Zoolander, only much more laidback and straight-up cooler. His mangling of the Malaysian president’s nationality (Micronesia, “that Eurasion dude”, and best of all “the claymation dude”) always gets a laugh (but not in Malaysia, where it was banned).
However, the biggest screen glutton is Will Ferrell’s Mugatu. I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a Ferrell performance as much since, and I didn’t really know his work at the time (Austin Powers aside). Mugatu is deliriously unhinged, even by Ferrell standards, his perma-hysteria impossible to resist, abetted by a steady stream of semi-improvisations – or just their intonation – are a delight (“Oh, I’m sorry, did my pin get in the way of your ASS?”; tipping his latte over devoted assistant Todd; “I’m a hot little potato right now”; and “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” on why no one else realises that all Derek’s looks are the same). Revisiting the movie, the only surprise is how limited his screen time is, so voluminous is his presence.
Also lending sterling support are dad Jerry Stiller (“Tushy squeeze!”), Milla Jovovich (relishing the chance to do comedy) and David Duchovny as conspiracy theorist and world’s greatest hand model JP Prewitt (“We don’t think the same way as the face and body boys do”). Prewitt explains how models have been responsible for the biggest assassinations in history, including Lincoln (John Wilkes Booth – James Marsden – was “the original model slash actor”) and JFK. Duchovny’s “You serious? I just, I just told you that a moment ago” was an improvised response to Stiller losing his place and asking “So why male models?” a second time, but perfectly fits Zoolander’s pervading density.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Jon Voight and Vince Vaughn as family members along with early appearances from Alexander Skarsgård as doomed modelling buddy Meekus and Justin Theroux (since a mainstay co-writer of Stiller’s) as Evil DJ, part of the picture’s grand finale as he mixes Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax with Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, while battling Hansel (“They’re breakdance fighting!”).
The as-themselves cameos are copious, but a few deserve singling out. The late great David Bowie is magnificent, so much so he warrants an onscreen title when he arrives (“I may be of assistance?”). He judges Derek and Hansel’s walk-off and looks suitably alarmed when the former has extreme difficulties extracting his underwear at the crucial moment. Gary Shandling also gets kudos for the ironic cuts to his less-than-perfect visage whenever beautiful celebrities are mentioned.
Winona Ryder’s appearance is uncannier than it is funny; she comments how she admires Derek as he “laid low for a while and then a made a comeback” following his disastrous awards experience; Noni was sent into career doldrums following a shoplifting offence three months later. But the highest honours go to none other than cool dude Billy Zane (“Put a cork in it, Zane!”) who rightly returns for the sequel. It wouldn’t be the same without him. The entire Cult of the Zane is built around this landmark appearance.
Stiller doesn’t waste a scene, and, as with the later Tropic Thunder, some of his targets are suitably near the knuckle (the plot revolving as it does around the fashion industry attempting to maintain lax child labour laws in third world countries). If the back-to-his-roots, coal mining interlude doesn’t quite work (“I think I’m getting the black lung, pop”, being the highlight), others that shouldn’t (yet another 2001 parody? Really?) absolutely sing.
Then there are the rightly esteemed classic scenes such as the model of the Derek Zoolander Institute for Kids Who Can’t Read Good (“What is this? A centre for ants?!”), the batty sex scene to the accompaniment of Love to Love You Baby, and the delirious brainwashing sequence (“Obey my dog!”) As these things go, the Derelicte conceit (couture based on homeless chic) is all too feasible (Galliano did something similar a year before), and you wonder how many of the self-infatuated fashion industry bastions cameoing were really in on the joke.
Cinematographer Barry Peterson hasn’t reteamed with Stiller (as a director), but his vibrant visuals are perfectly in synch, as is David Arnold’s score, which ensures the string of familiar tunes is both arresting and flows seamlessly. There are very few virtuoso filmmakers operating in the comedy arena; the Coen Brothers, Edgar Wright and Ben Stiller are pretty much the leading lights. They inherently understand that the best results come from actually working the camera, rather than merely letting the performers get on with it. Basically, Zoolander marked Stiller out one of the great eugooglizers.