If the term “okayness” had to be applied to a film, it would describe the comedy Zoolander perfectly.
Originally created for a skit during the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, the character of male supermodel extraordinaire Derek Zoolander is the brainchild of actor Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed the film. The plot revolves around the premise that male models have been behind every major political assassination in the past 200 years. Ludicrous as it sounds, the premise is actually one of the better aspects of the film. It’s something that sounds great in the abstract, but ends up being little more than a Manchurian Candidate rip-off by way of “The X-Files,” and filtered with a satiric look at the fashion industry.
Most impressively, the film also boasts more cameos than two viewings of Around the World in 80 Days. Billy Zane, Andy Dick in a fat-suit and David Bowie make the meatiest appearances. (When Bowie walks onscreen, the camera freezes the frame and scrawls his name across the screen, just as Mark Hammill is treated in Kevin Smith’s Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back—What’s the deal here? Are they afraid people don’t recognize celebrities any more?) In fact, Natalie Portman ’03 has a fun blip-cameo towards the beginning, although the inattentive are sure to miss it because of the rapid-fire editing and jarring scene-shifts.
Which brings us to the question of tone. While Stiller is clearly trying to satirize the hyper-attenuated attention span of VH1 and MTV directors and audiences, his film is never believable enough to deliver any substantial punch to the objects of his satire. His performance is the same way—his acting is best when it’s grounded in some real world backdrop, like There’s Something About Mary or Mystery Men. You can’t help but feel that something is at stake in the limitations of Stiller’s characters; in Zoolander, everyone is inside on the the joke, whether it be Jerry Stiller’s prostrate-troubled modeling agent or the rock band of Finnish dwarves that live at Owen Wilson’s pad. As a result, the film becomes just one damn thing after another, with gags connecting or misfiring in serial fashion, like a 90 skit comedy show.
The actors give it their best shot though, although “best” varies in quality depending on the individual. Owen Wilson and Stiller both turn in excellent performances, and Will Ferrell and Jerry Stiller play their Bad Guy roles with professionalism and aplomb. On the other hand, the female leads don’t come off as well. Milla Jovovich, she of the “actress/model” category so mocked in the film, seems to have been cast for her looks, and the fact that Stiller married Christine Taylor shortly after production wrapped may explain her addition to the production (Kidding, kidding...just barely). Additionally, Jon Voight has a strange, almost unsettling role as Zoolander’s father, and Vince Vaughn is wasted as his brother, whom I kept thinking was about to speak, but didn’t. Maybe they meant to give him some lines, or maybe they just didn’t have time to put them in.
The latter seems the more plausible option, seeing as this script does not seem like a project that spent its full time in the womb. What it does resemble, is a rush job, with a few set pieces scattered about and then quickly strung together by the writers with some hand-waving and some passable but hardly exciting gags. Which is not to say that there aren’t some really funny moments—I respect any comedy that’s willing to kill off likeable minor characters and still expect you to laugh (see The Big Lebowski). Zoolander is just enough to inspire ambient tittering, unfortunately, the humor only crests into real, memorable laughter about a dozen times throughout the film. If that sounds like a fair trade to you, head to the cineplex and get in line.