The son of two comedians (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara), New York-born and bred Ben Stiller always had a fervent desire to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Growing up in the limelight of his famous parents, Stiller would spend his spare time performing plays at home with his sister Amy and directing short films with a Super 8 camera. These early steps eventually brought him to a successful stint on the Tony Award-winning Broadway show "The House of Blue Leaves", a big screen debut in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun", and a year as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live". With his talent for combining cerebral satire, low-brow humor, and his chameleon-like impersonations, Stiller was awarded his own short-lived sketch comedy show on Fox, "The Ben Stiller Show" as well as a directorial debut with the Gen-X angst comedy "Reality Bites". Since then, Stiller has become a regular face at the megaplex, both behind the camera ("The Cable Guy") and in front ("There's Something About Mary"). With his latest film "Zoolander", Stiller is both in front and behind the camera in a campy "Austin Powers"-style send-up on the absurdity of the fashion industry. Though the humor in "Zoolander" is at times uneven, it delivers the laughs, besting the guffaw quotient of some other recent so-called comedies (such as "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and "American Pie 2").
The titular character, Derek Zoolander (Stiller), is the top male model in the world. Though he is clearly a few pages short of a Sears catalog, Zoolander has won the hearts of the fashion industry with his trademark 'Blue Steel' look. And having been crowned Male Model of the Year three years in a row, Zoolander seems to be a shoo-in for this year's award. Unfortunately, bright upstart Hansel (Owen Wilson of "Shanghai Noon") ends up claiming the prize with his blonde tresses and his more contempo style. And if that weren't enough, he loses four of his closest male model friends in a freak accident, and ends up being the subject of a scathing Time magazine article written by reporter Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor, aka Mrs. Ben Stiller). Browbeaten and confused, Zoolander begins to wonder if "there's more to life than being really, really good looking", quits the business and returns home to spend quality time with his coal-mining dad (Jon Voight, seen recently in "Tomb Raider") in New Jersey.
However, Zoolander is soon pulled back into the business when leading designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell of "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back") wants him to model the new 'Derelicte' line, a job he accepts at the urging of his manager Maury Ballstein (Jerry Stiller). Unfortunately, what Zoolander is too doesn't know is that he is about to become a "Manchurian Candidate", brainwashed to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia at an upcoming fashion show. Why the Prime Minister of Malaysia? Well, it seems that the Prime Minister is about to abolish child labor in his country, a move that a shadowy fashion industry cabal wants to put an end to-- and Zoolander is the perfect patsy, as he is too dumb to see what is really going on.
If "Zoolander" looks and sounds familiar, you're right, as this film is based on the short parody "Derek Zoolander: Male Model" that Stiller put together for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards. Similar to the "Austin Powers" movies, much of the humor comes from having a protagonist who is so self-absorbed and pretentious that he doesn't realize that he is also stupid (so stupid that it is spelled s-t-o-o-p-i-d). The film also takes numerous potshots at the shallowness of the fashion industry (judiciously accompanied by the songs of the Eighties), with highlights including Zoolander and Hansel's promotional videos of at the opening fashion awards scene, a cage-match-like 'walk off' between the two rival male models, Zoolander's futile attempts at coal mining, and a mock Aveda ad where Zoolander declares that 'moisture is the essence of wetness'. Unfortunately, some of the comic sequences don't work, such as the almost-excised 'orgy scene' or a brief parody of "2001: A Space Odyssey"-- thankfully, these are few and far-between.
Finally, to round out his lampoon of the fashonistas, Stiller brings together a virtual who's who of the entertainment industry. L'Oreal covergirl Milla Jovovich ("The Fifth Element") plays Mugatu's Nazi-like lieutenant, David Duchovny ("The X-Files") is appropriately cast as a conspiracy nut, Fabio mocks himself by receiving an award for being the best 'actor-slash-model' (instead of the other way 'round), long-time collaborator Andy Dick ("Road Trip") shows up a masseuse, and pop icon David Bowie referees the 'walk-off'. Other cameos include Billy Zane ("Titanic"), Natalie Portman ("Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace"), Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Men of Honor"), Gary Shandling ("What Planet Are You From?"), Winona Ryder ("Autumn in New York"), singer Lenny Kravitz, and Vince Vaughn ("The Cell").
In the final analysis, "Zoolander" may be stupid, but it is also a lot of fun. Not all of the jokes work, but enough of them do in order to ensure a good time. With Stiller's knack for blending smart satire with not-so-smart yet sympathetic characters, "Zoolander" is a comedy in the vein of "Austin Powers" that succeeds in what it sets out to do.