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Dumbing down Stiller loses his touch in 'Zoolander'

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Be careful what you parody. You might find the laugh is on you.

Ben Stiller's comedy "Zoolander" sets its sights on the fashion industry, that misunderstood force for good in the world. It creates jobs for thousands of underpaid Third World children, enriches the lives of vacuous celebrities and gives heroin users a boost in their self-esteem by making their addiction seem stylish.


Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and drug references.

Players: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Christine Taylor.

Director: Ben Stiller.

Web site: www.zoolander.com/

Critic's call:


Such an easy target poses a challenge to those who would spoof it. As Stiller says in the press notes, "You can't outdo the fashion world. You look at some couture shows and they're really out there, so you can't get bigger."

Or more ridiculous. Stiller, who directed, stars and co-wrote the movie with Drake Sather and John Hamburg, thinks he's being so clever that he doesn't see how silly it all looks -- or how incestuous.

He created the character of Derek Zoolander, male model, for the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards -- which happens to be the setting for the film's opening scenes. VH1 also helped produce the movie, which contains cameos from a score of famous faces you might find preening at the actual event, ranging from Fabio and Tyson Beckford to Garry Shandling, Gwen Stefani and Donald Trump.

After a while, I thought I was watching "E! The Movie." All surface, no substance -- an insider's club of empty baubles.

Once in a while, Stiller hits upon an image so outlandish that you can't help snorting in spite of yourself. Most of these scenes resemble horribly cliched commercials gone haywire. Here's Derek Zoo-lander swimming across the TV set in a merman's tail and a fish face, as pretentious as Frasier Crane at a wine tasting. Here's four grinning guys on a sunny day, cavorting to happy music as they spray each other with -- gasoline hoses?

At times like these, I think Stiller has never quite let go of that sketch-comedy TV series he had on Fox about a decade ago. "Zoo-lander" is a series of sketches posing as a full-length movie. Heck, the character himself is a sketch.

The joke that passes for the movie's plot involves a fashion-industry cabal that plans to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because he wants to ban child labor and enforce a pay raise for sweatshop workers. It doesn't sound quite so funny in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but I'm not sure it would have beforehand, either. The movie's insistence on sweeping across the New York City skyline may also cause anxiety for some.

The only advantage of the movie's inanity is that you don't dwell on such matters for too long. The plotters need a dupe to carry out their scheme. They settle on Derek, three-time male model of the year whose looks absolve him from the need to be smart. Actually, he looks more like a nerd pretending to be handsome. One of the more obvious visual gags involves Derek's modeling rival, Hansel, played by Owen Wilson, whose nose looks like someone used it for a kicking tee.

Stiller's wife, Christine Taylor, plays the one character with a clue, a magazine reporter who stumbles onto the cabal's plot. The director's father, Jerry Stiller, plays a modeling agent who wears clothes a derelict would reject. Jon Voight has a throwaway role as Zoolander's coal-miner father.

Stiller strikes me as someone who approaches comedy mostly from an intellectual level. Here, he's trying to play a stupid guy -- not unlikable, but as bright as Alaska in December. Steve Martin pulled it off in "The Jerk," but he's the exception that proves the rule. Most successful movie idiots are played by primarily physical comedians, like Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler (well, sometimes). Stupid is as stupid does, and it's better if you don't think about it too much.

Will Ferrell plays an over-the-top designer with blond locks that look like an electrocuted rat. His new look? The derelict style -- clothes you'd find on a homeless person. It sounds funny but after heroin chic, who would put it past them? It's a smart idea but it gets lost amid all the stupid people.

So does Stiller's comic touch.

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