Netflix Movie Month: "Zoolander" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, drug references)
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: September 28, 2001
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Genre: Comedy

The fashion industry makes for a tempting comedic target. The pretentious nature of the industry creates plenty of opportunities for ridicule, and the self-important behavior of so many of its key players gives yet more opportunities. Still, a relatively few films have mined its rich material as deeply as "Zoolander."

Fashion stars come and go, and "Zoolander" begins with the titular Derek Zoolander, played by Ben Stiller, being replaced as the world's top male model by talented upstart Hansel McDonald, played by Owen Wilson. Zoolander's attempts to retire and reconnect with his family are strained when he can't handle mining, his family's profession of choice, and he finds himself alone and unable to cope. In one of the movie's more realistic portrayals, the media turns on him as well, and he is ridiculed in the press.

In the film's universe, the fashion industry is as powerful as the real world's fashion industry sometimes seems to think it is, and a plot of assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia, who threatens to end the sweatshops that the industry loves so much, is hatched by fashion insider Jacobim Mugatu, played by Will Ferrell, and Maury Ballstein, played by Jerry Stiller. Zoolander has been chosen as the assassin, and he is conditioned to strike when he hears the song "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Thanks in part to a hand model named J.P. Prewitt, played by David Duchovny, Zoolander unravels the plot and finds himself on the run. He hides with Hansel, as nobody would expect him to seek refuge with his rival, and begins forming friendships with past enemies. Epic modeling ensues, and the showdown between the powerful fashion industry and some of its former key players delivers some exciting scenes.

Starring and directed by Ben Stiller, "Zoolander" takes an exaggerated view of the fashion industry. As with many comedy films, the characters are by no means believable. While some in the fashion industry are very competitive, it's hard to imagine the ongoing rivalry between Derek Zoolander and Hansel McDonald is realistic. The fashion world is certainly full of outlandish styling, but Jacobim Mugatu's hair and clothing are just a bit too much. "Zoolander" is not a mockumentary or an attempt to subtly poke fun at the industry; it is an extravagant plot that takes every element to its most extreme. This extravagance, however, gives the film a larger-than-life look and feel that makes it more enjoyable.

Perhaps most surprising is the film's cast. Movies with plots as irreverent as "Zoolander" often fail at the box office, and non-comedy stars generally stay away. Nevertheless, "Zoolander" attracted some of Hollywood's best and brightest. With Jon Voight, Milla Jovovich, Vince Vaughn, and Christine Taylor, "Zoolander" shows how effective Ben Stiller is as a recruiter. Comedy film fans will also notice a number of less popular but well-regarded stars, including Jennifer Coolidge, Andy Dick, Judah Friedlander, and Patton Oswalt, who portrays a monkey photographer. The list of cameos is especially impressive, and fans of music, fashion, and even sports will grin when they see familiar faces pop up.

Its large and talented cast gives "Zoolander" a broader scope than most comedy films can deliver. Each cast member adds something to the movie, and the resulting product has a grand, sweeping scale that can be hard to achieve in comedy. With a budget of just $28 million, actors who would often command high payments took considerably less money. They viewed the film not as a career-killer, but as an opportunity to branch out.

In order to truly succeed, comedy films need to have a bit of heart. The characters can be wildly unrealistic and unlike their counterparts in real life, but they have to seem human and sympathetic. "Zoolander" is able to portray both good and evil exceptionally well, and each character's archetype is portrayed successfully. Successful comedy films often contain elements of other genres, and Derek Zoolander's rise and fall mirror the classic hero archetype. This depth helps make the film enjoyable beyond its comedic moments.

Few can remember other comedy films released more than a decade ago. "Zoolander," however, remains popular, and it has endured as so many of its contemporary films have been forgotten. For its silly, cutting humor, talented cast, and surprisingly heartfelt plot, "Zoolander" is a great choice for those who have never seen it or those who haven't seen it in years.

Rating: 3 out of 5