A goof on the invitingly ripe and dizzy world of New York fashion, “Zoolander” misses its comic targets as often as it hits them but is endearing all the same for the good-natured cheer with which it skewers the eminently skewerable. Recycling into the theatrical arena the dim-witted male model character he created for the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, Ben Stiller also takes the occasion to return to the director’s chair for the first time since becoming a big comedy star with “There’s Something About Mary” and “Meet the Parents.” While pic falls far short of the hilarity levels of those smashes, result is a general audience satire of reasonable sophistication; at this moment of widespread uncertainty and nervousness, as well as zero comic competition in the marketplace, it’s likely that this erratic but amiable send-up of an air-headed cultural niche will be received as a welcome diversion from more serious matters.
Seven years after his last helming gig, on “The Cable Guy,” Stiller has lightened his touch considerably and with good reason, as the milieu in question scarcely needs major comic readjustment to make it look silly and ephemeral.
In fact, one of the main problems of the script by Drake Sather, Stiller and John Hamburg is the unnecessary burden of a “serious” plot thread which sees some baddies trying to give the dimwitted Derek Zoolander a “Manchurian Candidate”-style makeover into a political assassin.
Only clever thing about this gambit, which gets the film off to an uncertain start, is its motivation — the villains are fashion mavens anxious to remove opposition to child labor in their Asian sweatshops. Thereafter, it’s an increasing distraction from the character bonding that emerges as the picture’s strongest suit.
Politics be damned; what really counts in this world is status, which is something Zoolander loses completely when, after ruling the roost for three years, he’s displaced as Male Model of the Year by Hansel (Owen Wilson), a hot young blond dude with a swaggering mellowness. Crushed, and newly convinced that “there’s more to life than being really, really good looking,” Zoolander retreats to his family roots in the coal mines of Southern New Jersey, where his dad (Jon Voight) and two brothers still work.
Zoolander’s retirement is short-lived, however, as outre top designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell), the kingpin behind the assassination plot, recruits the unsuspecting model to star in his new fashion show, “Derelicte” (devoted to homeless garb as high fashion), as a way of getting him in his clutches. Subjected, in a very “Saturday Night Live”-like video clip, to some very amusing “brainwashing” by Mugatu, Zoolander is also followed around by Matilda (Christine Taylor), a Time magazine reporter who has just done a hatchet-job cover story on the recently deposed king of the catwalk, and unavoidably crosses paths with Hansel.
Unexpectedly, it’s in the developing relationship between these arch-rivals that the picture finally becomes centered. When Zoolander and Hansel meet at a nightclub, it’s like two legendary gunslingers heading for a shoot-out, the upshot being a “walk-off,” a fearsome runway competition to the strains of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (and officiated by David Bowie in just one of the pic’s many celeb cameos) in which only one man can be left standing.
Soon thereafter, however, when Hansel lets down his guard and, in an ineffably mock-serious moment, admits how much he’s always admired Zoolander, the two young men make a heartfelt connection that spurs a fast and fawning friendship. Film’s best stretch takes place in Hansel’s loft, where there’s always a groovy party going on and Hansel can bestow his hilariously generalized style of Zen on everyone.
When the boys, in a “deep” conversation with Matilda, learn that the cute workaholic hasn’t had sex in a couple of years, they remedy that state-of-affairs in a three-way that is quite charming but also raises more questions than it answers, especially regarding Zoolander, who at the outset is seen with nothing but flamboyantly gay companions. But in this fluffy universe where style and attitude are all, actual sexual orientation is made to seem like an afterthought.
Decked out in spiky black hair and a succession of wacky outfits, Stiller is constantly amusing, even if the character’s intentional superficiality wears a little thin at feature length; thesp also slightly overplays the “look” Zoolander knowingly flashes for effect.
There is no question that the picture is stolen by Wilson, who was so good as the “perfect” ex-boyfriend in “Meet the Parents” and here gets far more comic mileage than one could have imagined possible overlaying ruthless careerism with an affably vacant grunge/Eastern veneer.
Other supporting standout is Stiller’s father Jerry as Zoolander’s aggressively blunt, wannabe youthful agent. Cameos run from fashion world luminaries (Fabio, Heidi Klum, Tommy Hilfiger), w.k. thesps (Cuba Gooding Jr., Natalie Portman, Billy Zane) and all-purpose celebs (Donald Trump, Sandra Bernhard, Garry Shandling).
Some truly confident visual stylization and cinematic fluency would have helped sock over the comedy even more and get it through the more mundane patches; Stiller can’t make the comic book villainy of Mugatu and his personal cat-woman Katinka (Milla Jovovich) much fun, and his staging of the longer dialogue sequences (those without Owen Wilson, anyway) exhibit some awkwardness that results in sloppy coverage and cutting.
On the other hand, pic receives an enormous boost from key creative hands, notably production designer Robin Standefer, who has created a diverse range of witty and colorful settings in which the scenes play out; costume designer David C. Robinson, who has a field day in an all-stops-out display of fashion outrageousness, and music supervisors Randall Poster and George Drakoulias, who have come up with a particularly outstanding selection of pop tunes that reflect, spoof and amplify what’s happening onscreen.
Not so outstanding is the decision to matte out or otherwise obscure the late World Trade Center from shots that should have included the twin towers. Post-Sept. 11 releases such as “Don’t Say a Word” and “Serendipity” offer incidental views of the buildings, and while these might momentarily jar the audience out of the fiction, the effect is nothing as compared to the gaping sense of Where Are They? when confronted with shots of Lower Manhattan absent their familiar landmarks; when are the filmmakers pretending this film was shot, yesterday? Deletion of the towers from the picture is infinitely more disruptive, not to mention insulting, than leaving them in.