Skip to main content

Obey my dog!

Zoolander
(2001)

(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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…

The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums... and you.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous, and I’m not forgetting Weird Science. Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, 30-passing-for-15 types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard…