In the late ’90s, Ben Stiller finally began to gain the long overdue respect he deserved with roles in “There’s Something About Mary” and “Meet the Parents”. His characters were typically sweet, good-natured guys who happened to do and say the wrong things at the wrong time. With such a broad comedic appeal, both films were huge box-office draws, and Stiller’s reputation as a comedian was secure.
However, the innocuous and sometimes downright bland nature of these roles tended to belittle the fact that he’s a terrifically insightful and capable writer/director as well. From his primitive efforts on “The Ben Stiller Show” to the woefully overlooked “The Cable Guy”, Stiller showcased a unique brand of understated sarcasm that few of his Gen-X compatriots could imitate. His most recent effort, “Zoolander,” marks his outstanding return to the screen as writer, director, and leading man.
Stiller plays the leading role of Derek Zoolander, a vapid male model brainwashed by malevolent fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell, “Saturday Night Live”) to assassinate the new Malaysian prime minister. Mugatu seeks to kill the prime minister before he reforms child labor in Malaysia and subsequently destroys the fashion industry.
Derek is at the height of his fame, until an article by Time magazine’s Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor, “The Wedding Singer”) reveals him to be a vacuous poseur who’s past his prime. Confounding Derek’s problems is Hansel (Owen Wilson, “Shanghai Noon”), an up-and-coming hotshot who beats him for VH1’s coveted “Model of the Year” award. After an unfortunate gasoline-fight accident (it’s even funnier than it sounds) kills several of Derek’s fellow models, he retires, but is then lured back to the catwalk by Mugatu. But in the end, Derek, Hansel, and Matilda must drop their petty beefs with one another and join forces to save the prime minister’s life.
If “Zoolander” is a welcome return to form for Stiller, then it is nothing less than a breakthrough for Wilson. He is an absolute revelation, providing most of the funniest moments of the movie, and his trademark misshapen nose only helps to underscore the absurdity of the goings-on around him.
Stiller is also well backed by the likes of father Jerry Stiller, David Duchovny, and especially Will Ferrell. Used to the point of overkill in previous roles, Ferrell garners just enough screen time to remind us why he’s the funniest actor in recent years to successfully make the jump from television to film.
Early in the film, Derek quips, “There’s more to life than being really, really, really good-looking, and I intend to find out what that is.” On the surface, lines like this are simply meant to induce a cheap chuckle, but they really beg for closer inspection. Just as he poked fun at the effects of television on American culture with “The Cable Guy,” Stiller places the fashion industry in his sights and hits a bull’s-eye with “Zoolander.” His characters are intentionally reduced to caricatures (Derek’s one facial pose, Hansel’s misshapen nose, Mugatu’s bombastic costuming) for both comedic effect and pop culture commentary.
Stiller’s movies have unfairly been dubbed by some as polarizing — you either love them or you hate them. There’s none of that here, though. “Zoolander” has got enough slapstick mixed with subtle humor to keep you wishing the catwalk beneath Derek’s snakeskin boots never had to end.