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

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.