Ben Stiller has spent a large portion of his career playing variations on the same character: the neurotic, tightly-wound man whose life seems to be a never-ending series of frustrations. He's technically playing a version of that character in Zoolander, too, but there's a key difference: while many Stiller characters are men trapped in a world that seems to be working against them, Derek Zoolander is a man saddled with a mind too limited to comprehend that his life is spectacular. In one scene, Derek is shown a model of a charity center being built in his honor (“The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too”). He takes a long, hard look at the model and then tosses it to the floor in anger: “What is this!? A center for ants?”
This is a dumb movie, but it's one of those dumb movies so committed to its own dumbness that it frequently becomes something nonsensically entertaining. The fact that it's set in the world of high fashion helps justify the preposterousness of the whole thing: you have to go pretty far to serve up something that seems even more ridiculous than the industry's self-absorbed personalities, ethical murkiness and shameless extravagance.
The film begins with a group of shadowy fashion industry executives determining to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who has vowed to implement new child labor laws that will hurt the industry's bottom line. Powerful fashion mogul Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) is tasked with finding a male model to carry out the assassination. Why a male model? Because models are handsome enough to get into any room, athletic enough to handle any foe and brainless enough to do whatever they're told. When the mission is over, the model will be disposed of. Naturally, Zoolander – a wildly successfully model who has won international acclaim for his signature “Blue Steel” gaze – is Mugatu's first choice. Unfortunately, getting Zoolander onboard may be tricky: the model is having an existential crisis of sorts, and has decided to quit the business.
The assassination plot is absurd, but it only exists to give the film's charmingly idiotic characters something to do. Zoolander is less interested in telling a story than in serving up a series of absurd sketches and giving us a chance to hang out with its eclectic cast. Indeed, pretty much all of the film's major story beats – Zoolander's romance with a reporter (Christine Taylor, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), his rivalry with the laconic model Hansel (Owen Wilson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), the Mugatu business – are very conventional, but they also don't really matter. The film is about watching Derek and friends reveal the endless depths of their stupidity.
Stiller (who also directed and co-wrote the film) turns in a wonderfully silly, distinctive performance. The film is endlessly quotable, but that's largely because Stiller so often finds precisely the right way to deliver the character's goofy dialogue: “Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously good-looking?” He's complimented nicely by Wilson, whose low-key, relaxed brand of dumbness meshes nicely with Stiller's more intense variation. Ferrell has a good time playing another of his blustery buffoons (not one of his best, but still intermittently amusing), while Taylor gamely plays the straight man to all of these clowns. There are also endless celebrity cameos, which range from delightful (David Bowie!) to lame (Donald Trump) to random (Billy Zane?).
Stiller's direction is fast-paced and breezy, and the ninety-minute running time ensures that the film doesn't wear out its welcome before it hits the finish line. Appropriately, much of the movie resembles a glossy music video, complete with MTV-style editing and glammy covers of old pop tunes.
My favorite bit of Zoolander trivia is that director Terrence Malick is reportedly a big fan of the movie. I never really put much thought into it before, but after revisiting the film in the wake of seeing Malick's Knight of Cups, it sort of makes sense: both are about wealthy, handsome, self-absorbed men who eventually begin to wonder if something crucial is missing from their life and proceed to do some heavy-duty soul-searching. Zoolander doesn't have a fraction of Malick's visual poetry, but it does have Stiller angrily huffing that he knows the meaning of the word “eugoogooly,” so let's call it a draw.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2001