Zoolander offers the blissfully incongruous spectacle of virtuoso neurotic and rom-com sacrificial lamb Ben Stiller playing a supermodel, but the movie is too sweet-natured (and in many respects too otherworldly) to pin down as mere fashionista satire. In fact, implicit in Zoolander‘s goofy, scattered affability is an acknowledgment that its haute couture targets are sitting ducks, and therefore beside the point. Stiller and his co-conspirators lob their spitballs deliriously wide of the mark, and the result is a freakishly potent farce—stuffed with throwaway non sequiturs, fueled by absurdist counterintuition, premised on fearless repetition.
Only Stiller’s third directorial outing in a decade (he also cowrote), Zoolander contains virtually no trace of Reality Bites‘ commodified dissent or The Cable Guy‘s cathode-blasted psychodramatics, marking instead a return to the freewheeling SCTV-style lunacy of Fox’s short-lived Ben Stiller Show. An alumnus of the VH-1 Fashion Awards, the “really, really, really good-looking” Derek Zoolander is world-renowned for his inventory of lovingly named facial expressions: Ferrari, Le Tigre, the career-making Blue Steel, the reverently anticipated, years-in-development Magnum. The joke that somehow keeps on giving is that they’re all the same half-coquettish, half-stricken pout: a heedless fusion of italicized brow, sucked-in cheeks, and puckered lips.
The plot, a stoned update of The Manchurian Candidate, threatens to self-combust at any moment (though the underlying conspiracy theory, duly proffered by David Duchovny, is alarmingly coherent). After losing his Male Model of the Year crown to the aloof, almost mystical extreme-sports enthusiast and free-love advocate Hansel (Owen Wilson), depressed Derek is brainwashed by the screeching, wrathful designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell)—creator of a new line of homeless chic called Derelicte—into assassinating the prime minister of Malaysia so as to keep child sweatshops in operation. The crucial maneuver involves luring Derek to a day spa and playing him Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” As befits a VH-1 coproduction, Zoolander is awash in a sea of New Wave detritus. One early highlight, in which a slo-mo car-wash frolic turns tragic for Ben’s male-model roommates Brint, Meekus, and Rufus, is searingly scored to Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
For all its reliance on dumb-model comedy (Stiller doesn’t hold back with Derek’s malaprop vocab and clipped, preening diction), Zoolander is not without its pangs of bizarre pathos: Derek’s inability to turn left (he has to swivel 270 degrees clockwise, which he’s very good at); his humiliation before his coal-miner father and brothers when his Aveda commercial comes on the TV at their New Jersey watering hole (“Mer-man! Mer-man!”); the rivalry between Derek and Hansel—an unofficial sequel to the Stiller and Wilson sideshow in Meet the Parents, and the lifeblood of Zoolander. The antagonists’ score-settling “walk-off,” a runway duel of increasingly acrobatic poses, climaxes in an unsubtle homage to Stiller’s queasy brush with emasculation in There’s Something About Mary. Brittle narcissism subsequently falls away to reveal insecurity and mutual affection. In keeping with Stiller’s Farrelly-worthy strategy of distending a gag way beyond its logical punch line, the lovefest paves the way for an all-night orgy chez Hansel.
Zoolander‘s brainwashing component lends an unfortunate frisson to Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey, in which an angelic hunk named Peter Johnson is persuaded to cavort nude with an elephant and deliver moistly starstruck voiceover about his “journey” from Midwestern teen boy wrestler to billboard-emblazoning beefcake. (“Bruce’s friends gave me such strange outfits to wear.”) Weber is arguably contemporary culture’s most influential purveyor of erotic male images, and a skilled, instinctual filmmaker too, on the evidence of his poignant, voluptuously dreamy portraits Let’s Get Lost and Broken Noses.
A goulash of leftovers, Chop Suey folds together a willfully random array of Weber’s fixations, friends, and subjects over the years—a Brazilian jujitsu champ, an ex-junkie punk surfer, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the singer and lesbian icon Frances Faye, Robert Mitchum, Diana Vreeland. The point, an almost charmingly arrogant one, is to evoke a fabulously starry solar system with Weber at its center—or to prematurely eulogize a career that one Pet Shop Boys song (whose lustrous video Weber directed) would call “never being boring.”
There’s a generous selection of Faye footage, and the Mitchum/Dr. John recording-studio sequence is irresistible (for good measure it’s intercut with the full-frontal Arcadia from the 1974 Jan-Michael Vincent classic Buster and Billie). Time and again, though, words fail Weber. He’s a loquacious but unilluminating host. His anecdotes dangle and he pads the movie with “Studio Conversations,” during which the camera pans across photographs while unidentified voices jabber on mercilessly (“I love that book Tulsa, it’s so hard to find”). Weber provides intertitles quoting Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, but the closest he himself comes to an insight is a nostalgic sigh: “We sometimes photograph things we can never be.” Worst of all, in framing much of the film as a valentine to Johnson, Weber effectively articulates the dynamic encoded in so many of his photographs in terms of the corniest Pygmalion clichés.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2001