Zoolander: Ben Stiller’s Silly, Goofy Farce of Fashion Industry

Profoundly silly but sporadically entertaining, Ben Stiller’s Zoolander is a slight and goofy farce of the fashion industry, this time around targeting male rather than female models.

Based on the character that Stiller and MTV Movie Awards writer/producer Drake Sather created for the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion awards, the new comedy, which might have been inspired by Mike Myers’ far superior Austin Powers, is still essentially a short, strenuously stretched to the limits of feature-length.

Good title, colorful costumes, giddy set-pieces, and PG-13 rating should help Paramount cartoonish comedy, which is raucous but not randy, reach a broad base in these turbulent times, when the American public may flock to see a mindless escapist film as a respite from the past two weeks’ anxieties. Stiller’s track record with comedy, most recently in Meet the Parents and There’s Something About Mary, is a major plus, as well as the numerous cameo appearances by the likes of David Bowie, Garry Shandling, Gwen Stefani, Cuba Gooding Jr., and even Donald Trump.

Zoolander is packaged and sold to the public as a family affair, one blessed with Stiller’s talented clan and displaying good family and even patriotic values. In addition to Stiller’s real-life wife, Christine Taylor, who plays Matilda, a Time magazine journalist who first reviles and then falls for Derek, his mother, Anne Meara, plays a protestor at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, and his sister Amy plays one of Hansel’s fashion posse. Outshining them all is the director’s father, Jerry Stiller, who’s cast in the plum role of Derek’s long-time agent, Maury Ballstein.

Having defended his title of Male Model of the Year for three consecutive years, supermodel Derek anticipates his fourth victory, only to be defeated by Hansel (Owen Wilson). An early mid-life crisis ensues, when Derek has to absorb the devastating reality that he is no longer the world’s number one. What’s a model to do Addressing the camera directly, Derek confesses that he’s tired of being “a really, really, ridiculously good-looking stud,” and the time has come for proving he’s a hunk to be reckoned with.

Derek’s search for a purpose and meaning in life sends him back to his roots in Southern New Jersey’s coalmines, where his disapproving blue-collar father (Jon Voight) and his brothers work. Clad in a tight snakeskin suit and a matching suitcase, he’s ready to use his sensitive muscles, only to be rejected by his dad, who’s still offended by and ashamed of his son’s unmanly profession.

Rebuffed by his family, Derek returns to Manhattan, determined to confront the now ubiquitous Hansel in a contest. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, the two engage in a modeling walk-off to determine once and for all who’s the best runaway talent. The task is to remove their underwear (which fortunately Derek is wearing that night) while standing, without taking off their slacks or shoes.

A dramatic turn of events occurs when Hansel acts on his deep admiration for Derek and not only declares truce, but decides to cooperate with his former enemy in facing off the evil fashion underworld and its assassination plots. Things start looking up, when Derek gets his first comeback job from the ultra-eccentric designer, Mugatu (Saturday Night Live’s Ferrell), unaware that he’s now part of Mugatu’s fiendish plot–the diabolical designer has programmed Derek to the sounds of the disco hit, “Relax.”

The platinum-haired Mugatu, who fancies corsets, is assisted by a beautiful cohort, Katinka (Jovovich, who’s more creditable as a villainess than heroine), a woman who couldn’t be more appalled than by off-the-rack department store apparel. Opposing them is now a triangle, which consists of Derek, Hansel, and Matilda, the tough journalist who, after writing a scathing article in Time magazine, melts down and falls for the dim and naive icon. In a shrewd gender maneuver, the script makes Matilda the “straight man,” and reality-anchor, to all the other over-the-top characters.

Some of the cleverest scenes are phone or actual interactions between Derek and Ballstein, an agent-mentor, who becomes paternalistic and protective of his narcissistic client. Stiller pere, who gets to wear the most outrageously vulgar wardrobe, plays an old agent who’s very much a family type. A victim of an obsessive need to look young, he wears what he thinks kids are wearing. Ballstein dyes his hair blonde; the only thing that betrays his age is the hair on his chest, which he can’t dye.

Truly rowdy and impressively lacking in bathroom humor, Zoolander still faces two challenges that are only partially met. First, how to outdo the fashion world, a milieu that’s known for its surreal eccentricities, thriving on vanity as the most conspicuous personality trait. Second, the comedy betrays its origins, showing again that what’s funny, as a short sketch can’t sustain the running time of a picture. Since the material is really thin, the filmmakers opt for some extended visual gags, musical montages, and an endless parade of costumes.

For Derek, costume designer David C. Robinson has come up with an old school, early 1990s model look, with suits and collar shirts, whereas Hansel is dressed in more crunchy granola/sports grunge outfits. For the climactic sequence, a show Mugatu has labeled “Derelicte,” Robinson created bizarre apparel, made up of kitschy items picked in flea markets.

As director, co-producer, and co-writer, Stiller shows an impressive, almost dogged commitment to fluffy silliness in a comedy that’s bound to escape the bad luck of most of Saturday Night Live derived movie products. However, as actor, Stiller, whose screen image is that of “the Nervous Everyman,” who’s accident and humiliation prone, may not be the ideal performer for such light, spoof humor that takes gleeful potshots at a wide range of pop culture targets. Unlike Mike Myers, who has shown a singular, facile gift for skit humor, Stiller is too cerebral and intense–the sweat and hard work that went into making the movie funny are too visible.

Zoolander is peppered with many fashion models and “fashionistas,” including Claudia Schiffer, Vernoica Webb, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, and Tyson Beckford, all proving good sports in willing to spoof their images and careers.