I figured it was about time I took a break from teenage girl coming of age stories and watched something a lot more masculine. What could be more masculine than the world of male modelling? Nothing, that’s what! Zoolander, for those of you that don’t know, is a simple tale that attempts to answer a question that plagues all of us from time to time. Is there more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking? It’s a tough quandary to fully explore in the course of just one film, especially one that is only 90s minutes long, but Ben Stiller gives it his best shot. Click the link below if you’re so hot right now.
Zoolander follows the exploits of title character Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) as he is unwittingly, and that is exactly the right descriptive, drawn into a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia by a secret organisation of fashion executives. See, in this world, every major assassination in history has been carried out by male models. They can get in anywhere, they can get close to anyone and, most importantly, they don’t think for themselves. When fashion mogul Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is tasked with carrying out this assassination in just 14 days he realises he needs the blankest of all slates to turn into a killing machine. Derek is perfect for this. Plus his career is on a downward spiral because rival and newcomer Hansel (Luke Wilson) is so hot right now, so no-one would miss Derek anyway. As Derek is clueless it falls to investigative journalist Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor) to uncover the conspiracy and save Derek from what he has been brainwashed to do.
Gotta love the silly concepts for comedies. They don’t seem to happen so much now. In recent years comedies have, by and large, been rooted in a world closer to reality with bizarre events coming out of it. Go back to the time of Zoolander and things were a little more outlandish and just plain fun. I miss those days. The silliness of Zoolander, along with it’s quick wit and blunt but effective satire, is what carries the film through its 90 minute runtime. Like many comedies that are largely concept rather than plot based there is a large amount of the film that focuses on scenario rather than actual plot progression, but this isn’t so much of a problem. What the film does is set up the plot quickly, whilst also giving us plenty of time to acclimatise to the character’s quirks, and then just gets on with the funnies.
A subplot involving Derek’s search for acceptance by his father, and his quest to find something more to life, exists only as an excuse for a model working in a coal mine sequence and a handful of purposefully cliché moments. This could have easily been removed from the film and replaced with something else focusing solely on Derek’s quest for meaning. But these scenes provide a good series of memorable laughs and also the site of Vince Vaughn, Jon Voight and Judah Friedlander all sporting brilliantly spiky, yet soft, hair. There’s a few other sequences that could have been shortened or skipped but the world we’re being presented with is fun enough that none of these scenes fill too much like filler. Ben Stiller remembers that, with a wafer thin character, you need to work at giving him plenty of traits and desires to keep us amused with. The build up of his new look, dubbed Magnum, becomes a key moment in the film’s climax. As does Derek’s inability to turn left and his want to establish a centre for children who can’t read good and want to do other stuff good too. So while these scenes don’t always move the plot on they give us different views of a character who’s defining trait, other than being really good looking, is his stupidity. He’s always stupid, but at least he’s trying to be something else and has a desire for change.
Another element of Zoolander which makes it stand out as such a fun comedy is the sheer brilliance of each character. Every single person in the fashion world is either weird, perverted, a hippy, practically brain dead or a combination of each of those traits. Mugatu is a brilliant oddball villain that may well be Will Ferrell’s best character. Yes, even including Ron Burgundy. There’s something incredibly memorable about every second he is on screen. He’s practically a one man quote machine and his performance is littered with ticks and a rhythm to his dialogue that have the effect of making everything he says and does mesmerising. Personally his outburst at being given a foamy latte is my stand out moment. Or maybe his explanation of outdated child labour laws.
Along with Mugatu Jerry Stiller does his angry old man routine as Maury Ballstein, head of Balls Models. Luke Wilson’s Hansel appears at first to be a more worldly and possibly maybe intelligent rival to Zoolander, but he’s just dumb in a whole other way. He’s still smarter than Derek but the film hinges on everyone being smarter than Derek so that makes sense. It’s David Duchovny as legendary hand model JP Prewett who turns up to steal a few scenes in the middle of the film. He plays the effective role of the informant explaining the outlandish truth of the film’s plot in a way that could have only been done by Fox Mulder in 2001. A brilliant piece of casting to be honest. This may also be the most cameo filled film of all time. Everyone from Paris Hilton, to Larry Sanders, to Fred Durst and even Billy Zane (yes Billy Zane himself!) make an appearance. David Bowie even judges a “walk-off”, this film’s equivalent of a wild west duel.
Zoolander is a film made to be fun and not much else. There is nothing wrong with that. To me a film should be honest about it’s goal and should be laser focused on achieving that goal. Zoolander’s goal is fun and light satire and on those merits it is a resounding success. There’s messy plot moments, a few dodgy turn of the century effects and a moment where the film almost has a chance to comment on something meaningful (in this case Bulimia) it is very quick to sidestep and chuck in the jokes. These problems can’t be avoided, but neither can the laughter. Stiller’s direction is capable, of all his films I’d say it’s (ironically) the least visually interesting, but it does the job. It also features a very well chosen soundtrack featuring No Doubt, Herbie Hancock and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the latter serving as key plot device. The sum of its parts mean that Zoolander stands up as being just a really, really, really, ridiculously good time, and sometimes, that is all a film needs to be.