This review was published Sept. 28, 2001.
Although it’s difficult to make the fashion world seem goofier than the fashion world makes itself seem, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson do it with flashes of moronic brilliance in “Zoolander.” Sashaying across the screen like the love child of “Austin Powers” and “The Jerk,” it’s an irresistibly brainless comedy in which Stiller plays a male model so dumb that when a woman tells him she was bulimic, he squints, stares, and gasps, “You can read minds?”
The pretense of a plot arises from the premise that the fashion industry has been behind every political assassination of the past 200 years. In this case, a fashion cartel plots to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia after he threatens to outlaw the child labor that’s making a lot of fashionistas a lot of money. Luckily, since the film has no intention of sustaining it, this plot pretty much disappears. “Zoolander” mostly becomes a string of comic duets between Stiller’s glitteringly shallow Derek Zoolander and Wilson’s dude named Hanson, who’s laid back except when folding his aluminum scooter with the crisp panache of a marine drill team hurtling through the manual of arms.
Zoolander and Hanson begin as rivals, squaring off in a runway duel that rises to propulsively swishy heights, until Zoolander’s inability to remember his left from his right does him in. It is not a great career year for Zoolander. His moves aren’t working any longer. And his plunge into gloom is accelerated when his three equally dimwitted male-model friends go up in flames while parodying one of those balletic TV commercials that lyrically rise to a slow-motion crescendo of sexual double-entendre before coming to grief with a cigarette lighter at a gas station. Zoolander hasn’t a clue that he’s being hired by Will Ferrell’s poofster fashion tycoon, precisely because he’s too stupid to realize he’s being manipulated into serving as the assassin during an awards show.
Awards, by the way, don’t escape Stiller’s scalpel, either. There’s one called a Slashie, presented to that tower of gray cells, Fabio, for best model-slash-actor.
The movie is frankly in and out, uneven in inspiration and quality. But the byplay between Stiller and Wilson, who obviously hit it off when they worked off each other in “Meet the Parents,” keeps it going. When Stiller turns elsewhere, the level drops, as, for instance, when Zoolander returns home to his coal-mining family, headed by Jon Voight’s patriarch, ashamed of his son’s profession.
“Zoolander” is also quite a family affair. The model’s agent, a Catskills version of a Damon Runyon character, is portrayed by Ben Stiller’s father, Jerry Stiller. Anne Meara, the actor-director-writer’s mother, plays a protester who clubs Ferrell’s character with her placard, prompting him to complain of ugly protesters demonstrating against beautiful people. Stiller’s sister, Anne, plays one of Hanson’s groupies. Christine Taylor, his wife, also plays his comic foil here, a reporter pressed into service as a straight woman who learns to love the style-conscious simpleton. Their dog, a chocolate Labrador, also appears, completing the egregious, if disarmingly warm-hearted display of nepotism on parade.
Milla Jovovich, a real-life Slashie, sneers helpfully as the bad guy’s henchwoman. And the film is helped by its realization that the way to squeeze laughs out of the fashion game is to stick close to the real thing, in all its narcissistic idiocy, with assists from cameos by Claudia Schiffer, Tommy Hilfiger, and David Bowie. The silliness culminates in a show themed to homelessness, with a line of styles labeled Derelicte that features Zoolander in a see-through fat suit stuffed with garbage.
“Zoolander” isn’t always on the money, but when it is, it really is.
Directed by Ben Stiller. Screenplay by Stiller, Drake Sather, John Hamburg. Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Christine Taylor, Milla Jovovich, Jerry Stiller, Jon Voight. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated: PG-13 (sexual content, drug references)