Stiller struts his comedic stuff in `Zoolander'
By MARIO BIRD
Scene Movie Critic
Ben Stiller has carved out a niche in Hollywood with incredibility. In prior films, audiences watched in disbelief as Stiller's everyman character met with not just hardship, but incredible hardship. A sort of incredibility-meter rises as Stiller's scenarios transform from mildly abnormal to gravely disturbing to straight-jacket lunacy.
"Zoolander," which features Stiller as both director and star, paints this nonsense large upon the male modeling industry and the idiosyncrasies therein.
The plot, much like the intellectual capacities of the main characters, can be summed up briefly. Derek Zoolander (Stiller), three-time Male Model of the Year, is dethroned by the free spirited, goldi-locked Hansel (Owen Wilson).
Springing upon the suddenly vulnerable Zoolander, renowned fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) brainwashes the model under the pretense of a contract, inciting him to kill the president of Malaysia who has freed hundreds of Mugatu sweatshop workers.
Thrown into the mix are the beautiful-yet-unapproachable reporter Matilda (Christine Taylor, Stiller's real-life wife) and Zoolander's crusty mentor, Maury Baulstein (Ben's father, Jerry Stiller).
The rub, of course, is the race to save both Zoolander and the Malaysian president from the nefarious clutches of the mascara-eyed Mugatu.
After establishing his comic persona as a lovable loser in "There's Something About Mary" and "Meet the Parents," and as a one-dimensional despot in "Happy Gilmore" and "Heavyweights," Stiller provides a new twist in the self-centered knucklehead Zoolander. Though Derek seems a bit over the top at times, Stiller still delivers, making up for his character's stilted dialect.
Wilson, however, steals the show as Hansel. After providing a hilarious contrast to Stiller's Greg Fokker in "Meet the Parents," Wilson is back as Stiller's yo-yo-wielding, scooter-riding hippie nemesis. His overly bland delivery provides some of the film's drollest moments.
Will Ferrell, unfortunately, comes off as a square peg in the role of Mugatu. Relegated to a largely ceremonious role as the maniacal villain, Ferrell resorts to his time-honored tactics of uncommon mannerisms and shrillness. He has apparently elevated obnoxious effeminacy to comic genius, as "Zoolander" and various "SNL" sketches testify.
The rest of the cast is satisfactory in their typecast roles, but there are plenty of cameos and Hollywood references, including the funniest "2001: A Space Odyssey" parody of all time.
Obviously, "Zoolander" is not attempting to preach a profound message about the "beauty within" or the lasting values of the modeling industry. Neither does it push the envelope with revoltingly riveting sight gags, the sort that made Stiller famous in "Mary."
Instead, the humor content resides almost solely in the realm of cultural deprecation, mocking American society and the absurdities, human and otherwise, it has produced.
Whether the joke is Zoolander's insistence that his commercial character was not a mermaid but a "Mer-man," or the ludicrous shrinking pattern cell phones have taken, the one-liners and sight-gags are clever on a variety of levels.
Although the laughs seem somewhat harmless, "Zoolander" treads the line a bit by staging some of the more wanton problems inherent in its subject matter: Models are readily prone to drugs, sex and bouts of debauchery. Stiller neither lauds nor condemns such behavior, instead mocking it in the same tone as the rest of the film. This is perhaps an even more subversive result, lumping hair maintenance and drug-induced orgy into the same moral spectrum. There are also some regrettable jests made at the expense of dwarf, paraplegic and homeless persons.
In his directorial debut, Stiller makes sure to color inside all the lines, never risking anything beyond conventional within this foppish farce, except for a split-screen '70s throwback sequence that raises the incredibility-meter from moderately ridiculous to grotesquely absurd.
However, the overall pattern of the movie flows easily and is coherent, unlike the stultifying dialogue that Stiller bluntly delivers throughout the film.
Incredible though it may be, "Zoolander" rolls on the laughs throughout its 85 minutes and scores the comedic success many films only approach at a distance. -- Three shamrocks (out of five)
Contact Mario Bird at email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, October 4, 2001