Zoolander takes big shots at thin targets, or thin shots at big targets. Either way, the premise of this uneven, intermittently funny satire is bonier than Kate Moss: The fashion world is shallow, vain - dumb even! I know, I was shocked to learn this news, too. Wouldn't it have been fresher to hear that the fashion world is, oh, actually a club for members of Mensa with good bone structure?
As it is, Zoolander tells the story of Derek Zoolander, played by Ben Stiller, who also directed and co-wrote the script. Derek is the hottest male model ever and, by his own admission, “really, really, really good looking,” though also really, really, really stupid. This is the central joke on which all else spins, placing Zoolander somewhere between the dumb-fun silliness of Dumb and Dumber and the imaginative caricature of the Austin Powers movies.
Naturally, there's no real plot - there's not supposed to be.
Silliness can be a terrific end in itself when the jokes are funny, but only half the jokes here are funny. The trouble with dumb-fun movies, and the trouble here, too, is more often about balance. You can never have enough fun, but if any single joke is too dumb, the whole shebang quickly heads south. When Zoolander dips, it struggles to pull out of its dive. How could it when one of the biggest gags is a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody in which Stiller, frustrated by a computer, bounces like an ape for 50 seconds?
That's 20 seconds beyond the bit's life-span, and 20 seconds is an eternity in Dumb-Fun Land. Though admittedly, if there is a quiet competition going on in Hollywood over who can pull a 90-minute film out of the scantiest source material, then Stiller has trumped the skit-to-feature crazed producers at Saturday Night Live.
Derek Zoolander, a pouting, preening self-absorbed simpleton, was originally created for the VH-1/Vogue Fashion Awards, and like all great sketch characters, he's similar to a character actor. He's great in the short run, but not meant to carry a movie. So keeping in fine Austin Powers tradition, Stiller surrounds himself with a Mardi Gras of colorful crumbs: insane costumes, goofy names (Maury Ballstein, for one), celebrity cameos (from David Duchovny to David Bowie), and Monty Pythonish absurdity.
Because Derek's brain is Jell-O in the hands of evil fashion designers, he is easily lured into a day spa that's actually a “re-education” center. Once captured by Mugatu (SNL's Will Ferrell), a catty designer in a bleached poodle wig, Derek is unwittingly brainwashed to the strains of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 1980s hit “Relax.” Mugatu wants to find a way around those meddling child labor laws, so using his evil song, he implants a secret mission in Derek's brain: assassinate the president of Malaysia - or as his fellow models say, “Micronesia,” “Eurasia,” and, my favorite, “Claymation.”
None of this is as fun as it sounds in retrospect - Stiller's directing style is ultimately too cheerfully loose to nail the timing needed for a laugh-a-minute comedy. What Zoolander might signal, however, is the last time multiplex audiences see Owen Wilson as a co-star. With his smashed nose and laid-back delivery, Wilson, who was opposite Stiller in Meet the Parents, wakes up every scene he's in. He plays Derek's competition, the peyote-eating supermodel Hansel, and to rate him in vacuous fashion terms, he's pure Armani. The rest of Zoolander is pure Cheryl Tiegs Collection.