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Few non-formula comedies have become word-of-mouth hits in recent years, but Ben Stiller has starred in three of them: "Flirting with Disaster," "There's Something About Mary" and "Meet the Parents." His appeal in all three stems from his coming across as a generally smart guy who can't help acting dumb at inopportune moments. We see ourselves in his self-inflicted pain.
In "Zoolander," which Stiller directed and co-wrote, he's playing a dumb guy who acts dumb and makes funny faces. We don't see ourselves in Derek Zoolander. We just see a dummy who makes funny faces.
Mind you, some of Stiller's funny faces are funny, and co-star Owen Wilson makes some funny faces, too. But even at a modest 86 minutes, this comedy far exceeds the time span over which watching people acting dumb and making funny faces remains funny.
Stiller's biggest apparent inspiration here is the "Austin Powers" series, though Mike Myers' constant mugging is the most tiresome aspect of those films. Instead of playing a dim-bulb secret agent awash in '60s pop-culture artifacts, Stiller plays a dim-bulb male model awash in '80s pop-culture artifacts; Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wham! live again.
Derek Zoolander is the three-time Male Model of the Year, famous for his "Blue Steel" look, which resembles a cross between a pivoting James Bond and a deer in the headlights. What Zoolander doesn't know aside from basic grammar, spelling and arithmetic is that for decades a consortium of international no-goodniks have been enlisting male supermodels to carry out assassinations against world leaders.
Male supermodels, you see, make the ideal recruits because they're in prime physical condition and are accustomed to taking orders without thinking. As the dopiest of the bunch, Zoolander is chosen to be brainwashed to rub out the Malaysian prime minister, who is cracking down on the sweatshops that churn out designer wear.
Lampooning male supermodels is TV sketch material, which is how "Zoolander" originated; Stiller created the character for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards. There's built-in humor in seeing the nebbishy actor strike fashion-magazine poses and ponder a life of being "professionally good looking."
Wilson, with his surfer-Zen vibe and mashed-putty nose, is at least as amusing as the angelic Hansel, Zoolander's blond rival. The pair's climactic "walk-off," a duel of matching poses set to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," is the movie's silly apex, though a gasoline fight set to Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" comes close.
But once you've made the not-so-earth-shattering point that male supermodels are stupid and vain, there's nowhere for these characters to go. Our affection for the lunkheads of "This Is Spinal Tap" reflected our feelings about rock 'n' roll, but who outside the fashion industry gives a hoot about male models?
Lacking anything in particular to say, Stiller falls back on the crutch of just about every comedy hitting the multiplexes: pop-culture references and celebrity cameos. There's David Duchovny as the kind of shaggy conspiracy theorist he used to encounter on "The X-Files." There's David Bowie introduced by a snippet of "Let's Dance." Did you catch that "Godfather Part II"" quote?
Stiller (who previously directed "The Cable Guy" and "Reality Bites") keeps the tone bright, but there are some jarring notes, such as an unfunny Kennedy assassination joke and an out-of-the-blue sex scene (the action is implied, not shown) that just feels grubby. You may also find yourself scanning the numerous Manhattan skyline shots for a glimpse of the World Trade Center (it reportedly was removed from a few frames) and occasionally cringing at the New York assassination plot.
The movie is something of a family affair for Stiller, who cast his wife, Christine Taylor, as a Time magazine reporter who has nothing better to do than expose the vapidity of male models until she's charmed by Zoolander; his dad, Jerry Stiller, as Zoolander's manager, who complains of his enlarged prostate; and his mother, Anne Meara, as one of the "ugly protesters bothering beautiful people."
Will Farrell turns in yet another of his self-consciously goofy performances as the evil designer Mugatu, who appearance suggests a goat emerging from a car wash. Milla Jovovich has nothing funny to do as the villainess Katinka.
But the main problem is the director-star's choice to play so far beneath his intelligence for so long. Stiller lacks the physical gifts and projected sweetness of, say, Jim Carrey in "Dumb and Dumber," and unlike Peter Sellers in the "Pink Panther" movies, he can't keep a straight face.
There are enough people acting stupid in comedies these days that the smart ones shouldn't squander their brainpower. Derek Zoolander, after all, didn't write the script.
Directed by Ben Stiller; written by Drake Sather & Stiller and John Hamburg; photographed by Barry Peterson; edited by Greg Hayden; production designed by Robin Standefer; music by David Arnold; produced by Scott Rudin, Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 28. Running time: 1:26. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, drug references).
Derek Zoolander Ben Stiller
Hansel Owen Wilson
Mugatu Will Ferrell
Matilda Christine Taylor
Katinka Milla Jovovich
Maury Ballstein Jerry Stiller
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