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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.