Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: "Zoolander" is Smart and Silly

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 4 (of 2001) by Leroy Douresseaux

Zoolander (2001)
Running time: 89 minutes (l hour 39 minutes)
MPAA – PG-13 on appeal for sexual content and drug references
DIRECTOR: Ben Stiller
WRITERS: Drake Sather & Ben Stiller and John Hamburg, from a story by Drake Sather and Ben Stiller (based upon characters created by Sather and Stiller)
PRODUCERS: Stuart Cornfeld, Scott Rudin, and Ben Stiller
EDITOR: Greg Hayden

Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Milla Jovovich, Jerry Stiller, David Duchovny, Jon Voight, and Judah Friedlander with cameos by Christian Slater, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Tommy Hilfiger, Natalie Portman, Fabio, Lenny Kravitz, Gwen Stefani, Paris Hilton, David Bowie, and Tyson Beckford

In Stiller’s uproarious satire, Zoolander, he plays Derek Zoolander, male model and three-time winner of the “Male Model of the Year” award until he loses to a virile young rival named Hansel (Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon). In a bit of soul searching, Zoolander returns to his coal-mining hometown in South New Jersey only to be rejected by his clan, which includes his stone faced father (Jon Voight) and a largely silent brother (Vince Vaughn). A gay fashion maven Jacobim Magutu (Will Ferrell, who is increasingly being revealed to be a talented character actor with each film) recruits a spiritually lost Zoolander to kill the Prime Minister to Malaysia. The PM’s child labor laws threaten a shadowy cabal of clothing manufacturer’s, of which Magutu is part.

Clearly, the filmmakers mean this film to be a satire of the fashion industry, but it is a thin, superficial satire, which relies on poking fun at and holes in stereotypes of which the audience is familiar. If satire preaches to the already converted, Zoolander’s brand of satire will reap boffo box office. The movie does not focus so much on the industry as it does on what the general public perceives to be the fashion industry. This is not an insiders view like Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear. This movie really satirizes vanity, self-centeredness, selfishness, and ignorance more so than fashion, clothiers, designers, models and such.

Stiller’s Zoolander is a harmless buffoon, a clown for whom one can feel love and sympathy and at whom one can feel annoyance. Although he is the lead, Zoolander is not one of those super ego characters that act like a black hole and sucks the charm and life out of interesting supporting characters. This is why Wilson can shine so much as the postmodern, globetrotting adventurer, Hansel. The secret of Hansel’s charm is not his looks but rather his disdain for the obviously superficial Zoolander. Hansel successfully feigns disdain for fashion, but forwards a public persona of one who loves rugged manly adventure. Hansel is Zoolander’s foil and provides a nice dynamic of tension that the movie needs and does not get from its assassination plot line.

Clearly the filmmakers doubted that an entire movie could be made around Zoolander’s and his cronies’ lives, so they attached the thin genre thread of international intrigue to the story. It is a concession to the idea of plot and high concept. Movies can hang on characterization and characters’ charms and quirkiness. However, many movie producers believe that a movie has to be about “something.” The belief is that it is easier for a studio to sell a movie that is described as “vain supermodels must stop an assassination attempt planned by an evil fashion designer” than, say, a movie described as “a hilarious send-up of the fashion world.”

Zoolander also fairly bursts at the seems with superstar cameos, but the main cast is so good that one quickly forgets each cameo appearance as soon as it comes and goes, the exception being the nice surprise appearance by Wynona Ryder. Stiller and Wilson are really good, and there is a bite to their rivalry and a realness to their later reconciliation. Will (“Saturday Night Live,” The Ladies Man) can bury himself in a part and make it very good, although his character Magutu did seem a bit dark for this movie.

Christine (who played Marcia Brady in the Brady Bunch movies of the 1990’s) Taylor is a competent, if under utilized, foil for the two male models, and one gets the feeling that she could have added so much more to the movie had a little attention been turned her way. Milla (Fifth Element) Jovovich is lost in make up and in a perpetual scowl, but that doesn’t hide Jovovich’s immense talent. Stiller’s father Jerry Stiller (“Seinfeld”) plays an agent; it is an awkward forced part that is at times funny and at other times, fat that can be trimmed.

The movie is very funny and snide to the point of excess. Stiller, who proved to be a capable director is Reality Bites, fills each frame to the brim in order to create the atmosphere of his comedy. From wall hangings, to signs, sculptures, and costumes, he uses the visuals to establish his humor. A scene at a gas station is so funny and so well staged that it almost guarantees us a future of excellent comedy from Stiller, and it was worth at least half the admission price.

An excellent effort by all and well worth the time.

7 of 10


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