Runway Success

As 'Zoolander' tosses off insider jokes, every hair stays in place

September 28, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Landfills in Hollywood are knee-deep in execrable films based on sketch comedy written by or starring past and present cast members of Saturday Night Live. Thankfully, Ben Stiller's Zoolander is the diametric opposite, a well-paced, scathingly funny satire of the fashion industry and its eminently lampoonable pomposity.

Maybe it's because Stiller was only on the show for one season, or maybe it's because Zoolander didn't actually originate on the show, but in a short film presented at the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.

Whatever the reason, Zoolander actually features a character who consistently is funny, not just a comedian doing shtick. And did I mention the film is as sharp as its title character, vacuous male model Derek Zoolander, is dull?

Not that this guy isn't a piece of work. According to the world of the film, he's blindingly handsome and endlessly charismatic. Of course, as played by Stiller, he's neither, which is a big part of the joke. He's become an industry legend, a three-time Male Model of the Year award-winner and originator of "Blue Steel," a piercing, to-die-for look (his eyes locked open, his lips pressed together and thrust outward, he looks just like a sturgeon) that has made him a favorite of fashion designers.

And he's devoted to his profession, having known he wanted to be a model since he was in third grade for the first time.

But when fame is based on your looks, it can be fleeting. And so it is for Derek Zoolander, whose dream of a fourth-straight crown is thwarted by new pretty-boy-on-the-block Hansel (Owen Wilson, an asset to every picture he's in).

Shattered, his world in chaos and his moussed hair dangerously close to unkempt, Zoolander begins re-evaluating his life. "I'm pretty sure there's more to life than just being really, really good looking," he tells his agent, "and I plan on finding out what that is." Among his ideas for making the world a better place: The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good.

But this is no average voyage of discovery. For, unbeknownst to Zoolander, he's been brainwashed by fashion-industry nasties to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia, whose threats to end child labor threaten the sweatshops that are their life's blood. What was the last comedy you saw that borrowed a plot line from The Manchurian Candidate?

As Zoolander would probably put it: Gosh!

Among the film's comic high points is the scene where a dispirited Zoolander decides to move back with his father and brothers, who work in a southern New Jersey coal mine. Even wielding a pickaxe, the world is a photo shoot to our man Derek - much to the consternation of his dad, played with jaw-clenching disdain by Jon Voight.

His supporting cast is top-of-the-line. Wilson's Hansel looks like a surfer boy crossed with a Sherpa, and is clueless as Zoolander, if that's possible. Adding to the antics are Stiller's dad, Jerry Stiller (as his agent, Maury Ballstein), and wife, Christine Taylor, as a Time magazine reporter determined to get to the bottom of Zoolander (as if there's a top).

Zoolander delights in its pop-culture references, asides so numerous, you'd need a Cliffs Notes to catch them all. A whole bevy of big names show up in cameos, everyone from Garry Shandling and Natalie Portman (who shyly says she's too awed by Zoolander's looks to ask him for a date) to Claudia Schiffer, David Bowie and Fabio, who is seen winning the coveted Slashie, given to the year's best actor/model. David Duchovny, mining his X-Files notoriety for laughs, plays a male model-turned-conspiracy theorist. Evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) unveils a new line of fashion, Derelicte, based on the clothes worn by New York's homeless - an idea not that far removed from what sometimes shows up on the world's fashion runways.

Catching all the in-jokes is only one of Zoolander's joys. But perhaps the most encouraging is one I'd nearly despaired of ever experiencing: It's proof that a good movie can come out of the SNL stable.

Zoolander

Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor

Directed by Ben Stiller

Rated PG-13 (sexuality, drugs)

Released by Paramount Pictures

Running time 88 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

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