The call went out, not for a hero, but for someone "extremely dimwitted." For "a self-absorbed simpleton who can be manipulated." For "a shallow, dumb moron." In a word, for "Zoolander."
Derek Zoolander is not a superhero but a supermodel; the only things even remotely larger than life about him are his self-absorption and his ego. "Vain, stupid, incredibly self-centered," he is, all unawares, the preposterous centerpiece of the exuberant and insidiously funny satire that bears his name.
A fashion icon, Derek has parlayed a look he calls "Blue Steel" to win the industry's coveted male model of the year title three years running. Ben Stiller, the man who plays him in addition to co-writing and directing, employs a piercing look of a different, more insightful kind. Though he's best known as a pitch-perfect deadpan comic presence in films such as "Meet the Parents" and "There's Something About Mary," Stiller's Emmy-winning "The Ben Stiller Show" of several years back showed the gift for mocking, take-no-prisoners skit humor "Zoolander" thrives on. Here, working with co-writers Drake Sather and John Hamburg and using a character created for a VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards telecast, Stiller savagely skewers not only the fashionista universe but a ripe-for-ridicule popular culture that has elevated models to nearly god-like status. "Zoolander" starts, in fact, with the model being interviewed by investigative journalist Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor) for Time. Completely clueless about how clueless he is, this bear of remarkably little brain can't pronounce "eulogy," confuses "bulimic" with "psychic" and doesn't know the difference between architectural models and full-sized buildings.
Unbeknownst to Derek, the real world is preparing to affect his reality. There's a new prime minister in Malaysia who wants to raise wages and end child labor, both serious threats to garment industry sweat shops. A shadowy coalition of fashion moguls commands top designer Mugatu ("Saturday Night Live's" Will Ferrell) to find someone really, really dim to assassinate the prime minister. Zoolander is the inevitable choice.
Our hero, meanwhile, is having troubles of his own. He's enmeshed in a rivalry with fellow top model Hansel (Owen Wilson), a blond surfer dude who is never without his nonchalant "I grip it and I rip it" attitude. Suddenly riven by self-doubts, Derek starts to wonder, "Is there more to life than being really, really, really ridiculously good-looking?"
What to do? Stay a model? Retire and start giving back with the "Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good"? Or go back to his roots, which in this case means a trip to the coal-mining country of southern New Jersey, where his hardscrabble dad (a wonderful Jon Voight) can't hide his disgust. No wonder Derek is ripe for the "Manchurian Candidate" machinations of Mugatu's associate, the merciless Katinka (a well-used Milla Jovovich). Only reporter Matilda realizes the danger he's in. And time is running out.
Though basically an extended skit, "Zoolander" never runs out of amusing satiric thrusts. There's Mugatu's latest clothing line, inspired by vagrants and street people and called "Derelicte." Or the coveted Slashie, given to the best actor/model and won by the deserving Fabio. The film also gets laughs out of where it places songs such as the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke" and "He Ain't Heavy ... He's My Brother" and tosses in brief parodies of "2001" and the "Godfather" films just because it can.
Aside from numerous cameos (Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, David Bowie among them) and sharply cast actors (David Duchovny as the man who knows the truth behind every political assassination of the last 200 years), Stiller also makes good use of his family. Father Jerry is Derek's over-the-top manager, Maury Ballstein, mother Anne Meara and sister Amy have cameos, and wife Christine Taylor is very winning as the film's essential straight person.
Holding the picture together, however, are the well-meshed complementary performances of Stiller and Wilson, who share the ability to be deadly serious while their characters get increasingly ridiculous. The reality that neither one has, to put it delicately, quite the supermodel look makes this dead-on joke even more delicious.
MPPA rating: PG-13, for sexual content and drug references. Times guidelines: more funny than explicit.
Ben Stiller: Derek Zoolander
Owen Wilson: Hansel
Christine Taylor: Matilda Jeffries
Will Ferrell: Mugatu
Milla Jovovich: Katinka
Jerry Stiller: Maury Ballstein
David Duchovny: P. Prewitt
Jon Voight: Larry Zoolander
Paramount Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures presents in association with VH1 and NPV Entertainment, a Scott Rudin and Red Hour production, released by Paramount. Director Ben Stiller. Producers Scott Rudin, Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld. Executive producers Joel Gallen, Adam Schroeder, Lauren Zalaznick. Screenplay Drake Sather & Ben Stiller and John Hamburg. Story Drake Sather & Ben Stiller. Cinematographer Barry Peterson. Editor Greg Hayden. Costumes David C. Robinson. Music David Arnold. Production design Robin Standefer. Art director Stephen Alesch. Set decorator Donna Hamilton. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times