The comic premise of Zoolander is that even the most frivolous and presumably inconsequential institutions—here, the fashion industry—can have serious social and political effects, internationally. The film opens with newsreel footage celebrating the election of the new Prime Minister of Malaysia, who has promised to end child labor and to raise sweatshop wages. We then watch a mysterious cartel of evil fashion designers assign the job of ending this nuisance to low-cost labor to Mugatu (Will Ferrell), a bitchy, high-pitched, high-strung fashion designer sporting a strangely poodle-like haircut. His mission? To find a male model to brainwash into assassinating the Malaysian leader. Why male models? Well, “Because they do what they’re told.”
Mugatu decides on Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), who does what he’s told and is as stupid as they get. But Derek isn’t just any male model, he’s the male model, the It Boy of Zoolander‘s world of glitz and glamour. His reign ends, however, with the arrival of Hansel (Owen Wilson), whose long blonde locks and beatnik-chic steal the Male Model of the Year Award out from under Zoolander’s oblivious nose. Add to that a Time magazine cover story declaring Derek “A Model Idiot,” and it’s clear that the inventor of “Blue Steel,” the sunken-cheeked look that “made Zoolander the legend he is today,” has hit rock bottom, making him the perfect tool for Mugatu’s nefarious plan.
It’s probably obvious that Zoolander won’t be much of a threat come Oscar time. The reality is that parodying the fashion industry is a pretty pointless endeavor, for the simple fact that ultimately, it parodies itself. Mugatu’s Derelicte show, consisting of the latest in hobo couture, pretends to be funny, but is really no more ridiculous than say, Jean Paul Gaultier’s infamous collection “inspired” by prison and concentration camp uniforms. Additionally, male models have already been the subject of lame social commentary in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1998 novel, Glamorama.
Certainly there’s something to be said about the way male modeling puts “traditional” notions of masculinity in jeopardy. But the film also skirts around homophobia, in finding humor in the spectacle of “compromised” masculinity—it’s not very “manly” to be all modelly artifice and the object of multiple sexual gazes. Zoolander must be given some credit for acknowledging the anxiety this raises, particularly in Derek’s coal-mining father (Jon Voight)‘s response to his son’s return home. After watching an Aveda commercial that stars Derek in a fishtail, his father announces, “You’re dead to me, boy. I’m just glad your mother didn’t live to see her son as a mermaid.” Zoolander deals with this conflict with an inept comeback, as Derek defiantly corrects his father, “Merman!”
It should perhaps be no surprise that Zoolander is so epically deficient, for in true Saturday Night Live fashion the entire film is based on a five minute skit from the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards that’s been stretched out to a full ninety minutes. And if other recent skits-cum-feature films are any indication of Zoolander‘s possibility for success, then it should have no problem living up to the expectations of, say, It’s Pat. While Zoolander‘s sketch comedy roots don’t necessarily spell instant doom, it’s hard to forget that for every enjoyable Wayne’s World, we seem to be inundated with countless Coneheads.
But let’s cut the film a little slack. After all, we’re not talking about just anybody here, but Ben Stiller, the man who made us fall out of our seats when he offered to milk Robert De Niro’s nipples. Unfortunately, the most endearing aspects of Stiller’s best characters—their insecurity, their bumbling attempts to express themselves, and their lovable loser-ness—are in large part absent here. Make no mistake: Derek Zoolander is as much a loser as other Stiller characters. But he’s petty, superficial and mean to boot. It’s hard to sympathize with a guy who mocks the reporter who declared him “a model idiot,” Matilda (Christine Taylor), for her teenage bulimia (the far-too-obvious source of her dislike for models).
For all his brutishness, the film tries to be sympathetic to Derek, and to show he has a “sensitive” side. He tells his three male model roommates (they all share a single room, with four bunk beds conveniently labeled with each person’s name, presumably to convince us further of male model idiocy) that, “Maybe we should be doing something more meaningful with our lives—like helping people.” Of course, Derek quickly forgets his own advice in favor of racing through the streets of New York City in a jeep, listening to Wham! and sipping on Orange Mocha Frappuccinos.
Even if Ben Stiller misses the mark with his portrayal of Derek Zoolander, what about the other characters he creates, might they make good on the comic’s usual smartness? Well, they are all as annoying and cliched as Derek. You can see Hansel’s spacey Jack Kerouac-cum-Keanu Reeves surfer shtick coming from a mile away, dude. Mugatu’s Russian henchwoman, Katinka (Milla Jovovich—who is not a gifted comic), is a caricature of Natasha, from The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, who was already a caricature of Cold War James Bond villainesses. Only Will Ferrell seems to emerge unscathed from this debacle, in his fantastically weird turn as Mugatu. Then again, with such SNL inspired dreck as Ladies Man and A Night at the Roxbury on his resume, he’d have to gun pretty hard for bottom.
One of the more imaginative and entertaining parts of Zoolander is its bevy of ‘80s references. The band Frankie Goes to Hollywood and their erstwhile hit, “Relax,” play an important role in the film’s finale. Derek’s solo dance number recalls ‘80s musicals like Footloose. And in one of the film’s more entertaining moments, it re-imagines Michael Jackson’s video for “Beat It” in the context of a “walk-off”: a runway duel between Derek and Hansel, set in a gritty, abandoned Members Only warehouse, refereed by that most fashionable of rock stars, David Bowie. But what does all this ‘80s inspired goofiness mean? Well, the decade is often lambasted for being all surface and no substance (such as in American Psycho), just as the world of high fashion in Zoolander. But this argument about fashion’s shallowness is one few will likely disagree with, and a whole film isn’t necessary to convince us of this.
The film’s best idea may be the incredible number of cameo appearances—Tyson Beckford, Tommy Hilfiger and Fred Durst, to name a few—that are peppered throughout. They are today’s inheritors of yesterday’s style-over-substance ethics that Zoolander is so bent on ridiculing. It’s a rather smart twist, but even this comment on the perennial superficiality of fashion and superstar culture doesn’t really achieve any sort of credibility. While Zoolander tries to use these cameos as some sort of social commentary, the film nonetheless embraces the thing it criticizes and continues to prop up and promote the ephemeral careers of these fashionistas and MTV darlings.