Lying in bed, just like Owen Wilson should have…
Sometimes a great idea deserves only a little time. When
Derek Zoolander first appeared on the VH-1 Fashion Awards, Stiller's
character got a lot of laughs with short hits. Because no good idea
goes unpunished in this age of studio synergy, someone insisted this
would make a great movie. Unfortunately, Zoolander takes its
sketch concept and stretches it thinner than your average SNL movie.
The story involves a fading male fashion model, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller, also writing and directing), attempting to salvage his career and unravel a plot of brainwashing and assassinations vaguely reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate. The film advances in fits and starts, propelled by Will Ferrell (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) as Mugatu, an evil designer with a wacky wig and a voice like South Park's Mr. Garrison, and Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon) as the up-and-coming model, Hansel, who is moving into Zoolander's spotlight.
Both Stiller and Ferrell overplay their roles, stinking of the desperation that emanates from someone trying to be funny rather than just being funny. It sounds zen, but in many ways comedy is zen. Wilson at least escapes unscathed, playing his new-age hippie straightforward. He allows the material to be funny instead of doing the little song and little dance with some seltzer down his pants.
One of the first rules of making fun of something is that your subject must take itself seriously. It's impossible to make fun of a fool. (This is why Scream worked.) Zoolander breaks this rule, much to its detriment. An already outlandish and silly world, the fashion industry has already weathered movies like Ready To Wear and Unzipped with little success, because the characters Zoolander attempts to skewer don't take themselves nearly as seriously as the movie does.
The only gag in Zoolander that demonstrates any wit in its mockery sends Hansel and Derek to the old Member's Only warehouse for a "Walk-Off", a mano-a-mano showdown of strutting. David Bowie makes a cameo as the judge of the Walk-Off, proving his own understanding that if you're going to be funny you'd better not act like you want to be. Other than that, the gags fall flat or don't go far enough to be funny against the ludicrousness of the real fashion world.
In his directorial debut, Stiller himself solidly nailed the fashion industry. During a throwaway moment in Reality Bites, a fashion reporter from In Your Face Television reports from Compton on street-chic, displaying a Donna Karan bandana which is "blue for Crips, red for blood, and only costs seventy-five dollars." It's possible that VH-1, Zoolander's fashion-friendly backer, forced restraint on Stiller's writing and directing, but his track record isn't that strong on its own either.
The Cable Guy, his second film, suffered mildly from the lack of a consistent world. Matthew Broderick and Jim Carrey seemed to be acting in two different films, and Zoolander's problems are even worse. Between Stiller and Ferrell over-mugging, Wilson's dead on performance and everyone else shucking and jiving, the contrast is too great. It's a spy movie with characters from The Day of the Jackal(Deadly Serious), Live and Let Die (A Little Goofy), and Austin Powers (Downright Wacky) all in the same story. It doesn't work. In Ghostbusters the heroes , their ghosts and their villains all played at the same pitch. On rare ocassions the right combination of pitches creates harmony, but usually it's just a discordant mess.
On top of that the film is simply sloppy. Some jokes are told three times and other set-ups are abandoned entirely. A hand-model keeps his hand in a hyperbolic chamber to protect it, and of course the glass breaks, but the pay-off is nothing more than the hand-model's annoyance. Zoolander's "new-look" project, which he is working on but not ready to show, is so telegraphed that it is almost surprising when the "new-look" works, because it is so inept and heavy-handed.
Someone once said that if a gun will be used in the final act, then that gun needs to be shown in the first act. Hopefully the story between the set-up and the pay-off will distract the audience from that gun on the mantel, and in the final moments they think, "Of Course! The Gun!" If, however the gun (actual or metaphorical) is left on the mantel in the first act and every ten minutes someone picks it up and plays with it, the audience will only be surprised if the gun doesn't go off. In Zoolander the gun is not only obviously on the mantel, it works perfectly. Ironic and anti-climactic.
Some of the sloppiness may be the result of an MPAA fiasco; this movie was blatantly written and shot as a proud R, then whittled into PG-13 when it became obvious that no one over 16 would be amused by it. When a film features an orgy scene, even a comedic one, and an actor with a filthy mouth (Wilson), one wonders what was discarded to get the child dollars. (Indeed, Stiller argued with the MPAA to keep that sequence in, saying it was more silly than sexy.) This movie feels the need to herald David Bowie's cameo with a freeze-frame and a title inlay but assumes Lance Bass and Billy Zane need no introduction.
Zoolander misses a whole lot more than it hits. Except for Owen Wilson this whole picture isn't worth more than the wait for its cable premiere on VH-1's Movies That Rock.
What's it worth: $4.50 and a buck of that is just for a brief Winona Ryder cameo. Winona, please mail me.