Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Movie Review: "Zoolander" by David Pretty

I have no idea why Zoolander inspired a sequel fifteen years later. Oh, wait, yes I do. It's a five-letter word that starts with "m" and ends in "y".  And it ain't "mercy".

Ben Stiller plays Derek Zoolander, a pretty-but-incredibly-dim male model who's on the downside of his career trajectory. In addition to fending off irrelevance at the hands of "so hot right now" rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), Derek's monumental stupidity makes him the perfect unwitting pawn in the machinations of evil fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell) who wants to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia for cracking down on child labor laws.

In addition to this surprising dollop of social commentary, Zoolander gets a lot of mileage out of making fun of the modelling and fashion industry. Since I've always thought that mega-designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Donatella Versace were vampires anyway, their here as James Bond style super-villains isn't much of a stretch to me. In fact, one can argue that the general population has become so vapid, vacant and self-absorbed in the intervening years that the movie's extreme parody is starting to feel distressingly normal.

It's pretty much self-evident that Ben Stiller had a blast with this role. In addition to his immaculately-coiffed fright wig of spiky, black hair, "blue steel" became the unexpected prototype for the duck-faced selfie. When you add in the slightly-effete man-child voice, his propensity to strut everywhere as if he's on a runway and that consistently vacant "I-don't-have-a-clue-what-you're-saying-but-maybe-if-I-look-really-intense-it'll-seem-like-I-know" look, you've got a memorable comedic character for the ages. So, above and beyond a dump truck filled with cash, I can see the appeal of bringing Zoolander back for another kick at the can.

At face value, Owen Wilson might seem like an unconventional choice as a male model, but he's actually spot-on as the pouty, granola-munching, patchouli-scented, breakdance-fighting, neo-hippy Hansel. Watching Hansel and Derek trying to access the files in a delightfully-archaic iMac, 2001: A Space Odyssey style, is pure comedy gold. Jut-jawed, doe-eyed and mouth slightly agape at all times, Wilson is perfectly straight while delivering such enduring lines like "Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm gonna give it my best shot".

Someone's gotta be the straight man here and, in this case, the straight man is a woman, namely Ben's real-life paramour, the delightful Christine Taylor. After watching her excel as muck-raking reporter turned free-spirit crusader Matilda, I really think she deserves more work in Hollywood beyond her husband's flicks. On a more sober note, Matilda was clearly included to make fun of once-proud bastions of journalism like Time magazine for running blatant puff pieces on fashion and celebrity. Nowadays it's de rigueur in the media.

As a master at portraying befuddled, indignant characters, Will Ferrell makes Mugatu one of his best roles. Whether he's trying to fathom Zoolander's bottomless stupidity, having a diva moment over a coffee requisition or looking glassy-eyed during a Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing video, Ferrell pretty much steals every scene he's in. The fact that his character appears to be named after a slightly less goofy-looking monster that Captain Kirk fought in an episode of Star Trek is just icing on the cake.

Above and beyond the top-billed actors who do a great job with the material, the script actually serves up some pretty funny set-pieces. After suffering through an epic level moment of public humiliation, Derek seeks solace from his three male-model room-mates, including an embryonic-looking Alexander Skarsgård as Meekus. Unfortunately their attempts to buoy Derek's mood results in a "freak gasoline-fight accident" that inspires our hero to *gasp* retire from the industry.

This results in one of the comedic highlights of the film. Derek goes back home to "coal country" in "Southern New Jersey" where he reunites with his estranged dad Larry (John Voight) and his brothers Luke (Vince Vaughn) and, um, Scrappy (Judah Friedlander). The sight of these three guys in their matching jet-black fright wigs, looking slightly dazed into the camera with coal-smudged faces just kills me. Voight is particularly hilarious, employing a facial expression that's half "deer in headlights" and half "OMG, what smells so bad?!?"

The film also benefits from a slew of high-placed supporting actors, including Ben's real-life pops Jerry, who plays Derek's sleazy, caustic agent Maury Ballstein. Milla Jovovich pouts, sneers, glares, and stalks her way through the film as Mugatu's ass-kicking assistant / enforcer Katinka Ingabogovinanana. Even buried under a ton of severe-looking makeup she still looks impossibly hot. And even though David Duchovny as paranoid, conspiracy nut / retired hand model J.P. Prewett is bit on the nose, its fun to see a grizzled and extra-cranky alternate-timeline Fox Mulder. Shades of the new X-Files series. Zing!

There are way too many cameos to mention and a lot of them are hideously dated (Fred Durst and Lil' Kim, I'm looking in your direction) but some of them are great. I dare you not to crack up as Natalie Portman earnestly refers to Derek as "almost too good looking." It's also great to see the late, great David Bowie preside over the intense "walk-off" between Derek and Hansel. But my favorite cameos are the "blink-or-you'll-miss-it" variety which includes Patton Oswalt as the "monkey photographer" and James "Spike" Marsden as John Wilkes Booth.

My only real complain is that the film isn't nearly as vicious as I'd like it to be. Even though I have to give props to to Stiller for skewering such ripe targets as the fashion industry, superficiality, self-absorption, and info-tainment news, I really wish that he'd been a bit more merciless with the satire. Having said that, when you realize Mugatu's incredibly tasteless "Derelicte" fashion line was inspired by this ass-clowns actual work, you soon realize that Stiller didn't have to dig too deep to find the parody. He just had to rename it.

And while I think it's gutsy that the film raises some pretty serious issues, they're immediately jettisoned in lieu of some cheap, increasingly-surreal Naked Gun / Airplane! gags. I'm referring, of course, to the fate of Derek's roomies, our hero's animated erection, and the Force-like powers inherent in his "new" "look" Magnum. Sure, I didn't exactly expect a PBS documentary when I sat down to watch this thing but when you raise issues like child labor and then include scenes of David Duchovny wearing an oxygen chamber on his hand, the whole edifice takes a hit. 

Not-so-fun-fact: the movie was originally released in theaters on September 28'th 2001, two weeks after 9/11. Needless to say, not many people were in a jokey mood at the time and the film sunk into oblivion pretty quickly. High testimony then that the movie found its audience on home video and has since become a cult comedy classic, to the point where a sequel would be green-lit fifteen years later.

Inevitably, your tolerance for Zoolander will be based on how much you like Ben Stiller, how much you despise the fashion industry and how much goofy you can tolerate in your humor. Even after answering "a lot", "even more so" and "not so much", I wanted to write it off as disposable, but the more I think about it, the more I liked it. For its unique combination of social satire, appealing cast, fun cameos and genuinely amusing set-ups, the movie rates a "Relax...Go To It".

Tilt: up.


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