In Zoolander, Ben Stiller’s 2001 send-up of the fashion industry, the shadowy controlling figures of the trade task leading designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) with finding a suitable candidate to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia in response to his cracking down on child labour, a major source of their production workers. They suggest their tried-and-true method of brainwashing someone incredibly stupid to do it for them without the poor sap even realising, which is, of course, where the beef-headed Derek Zoolander comes in.
As dumb characters in dumb comedies go, only the duo from Dumb and Dumber get much dumber than Derek. His reign as the king of men’s fashion coming to an end at the hands of young usurper Hansel (who is so hot right now), followed by the tragic death of his flatmates Brint, Rufus and Meekus in a freak gasoline fight accident means it’s the perfect time for Mugatu to manipulate the fragile moron to carry out his plot.
Although it features many regulars of Stiller’s work, Zoolander finds them playing some of their most memorable characters. Owen Wilson shines as the at first arrogant, later adorable, and always idiotic Hansel, totally embracing the new-age-surfer-hippy chic the character is so fond of. In fact, Hansel is like a dumber version of Wilson’s character Eli Cash from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, released in the same year; they both love tasselled clothing, have the same haircut, and enjoy copious amounts of mescaline. Stiller is a loveable simpleton in the title role, decked out in preposterous outfits in every scene. He’s sweet, but as thick as fudge from the first encounter with him, when he outlines the differences between his famous looks; ‘Blue Steel’, ‘Ferrari’ and ‘Le Tigre’, and the secretive ‘Magnum’ he’s been working on for years, all of which are exactly the same.
The interplay between Stiller and his real-life spouse Christine Taylor in investigative journalist Matilda’s straight-woman role is great, in particular her constant exasperation with the moronic models, even as her feelings towards them become more positive. A particularly standout moment is her utterly flabbergasted reaction to Derek asking if having bulimia means she can read minds.
The absolute star of the show, however, is the actor Tina Fey describes as the best sketch comedian she has ever worked with: Will Ferrell. In his role as Mugatu, Ferrell arguably kickstarted his career as a major name on the comedy movie circuit, and it’s not hard to see why. Ferrell totally becomes Mugatu, dialing up the eccentricities and diva behaviour to the limit, not to mention owning the fashion mogul’s collection of man-corsets. Mugatu’s crazed rant at the climax of the film is one of the standout scenes of Ferrell’s career, his voice high-pitched and cracking, wild curly white hair everywhere, screaming incredulously about Derek only having one look.
In addition to memorable turns from the stars, Zoolander is chock-a-block with celebrity cameos. An opening montage at the awards ceremony sees names like Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Portman, Tom Ford, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Donald Trump to name but a fraction of them, with appearances from the likes of Paris Hilton, Winona Ryder and Billy Zane (unfortunately appearing in his last major feature film) to follow.
Outdoing them all, however, are two Davids – Bowie and Duchovny. Bowie offers his services as umpire of an underground warehouse “walk-off” between Derek and Hansel, sitting at the end of the runway scribbling notes in a tiny notebook. He only appears for a few seconds and the role consists of a handful of lines, but the sheer surprise of his appearance far outweighs his meagre screentime. Duchovny plays a “Deep Throat” style informant, a scruffy, bearded ex-hand model named J.P. Prewitt who was able to survive in the industry because “they’re a different breed to the face and body boys”. He can also lay claim to one of the finest ad-libs around, thinking rapidly on his feet when Stiller fluffed a line, creating a much funnier response than what was originally in the script.
As preposterous as the concept sounds at first, Duchovny’s explanation as to why male models have been used throughout history as mindless assassins is actually pretty watertight; they’re in peak physical condition, can gain access to the most secure places in the world, and, most important of all, models don’t think for themselves, they do as they’re told. The concept may not be entirely original – Bret Easton Ellis attempted to sue the crap out of Ben Stiller upon the release of the film, citing similarities to his 1998 novel Glamorama, which follows a none-too-bright male model who becomes involved in an international terrorist ring rooted in the fashion industry. The pair later settled out of court.
Legal battles aside, Zoolander milks the stupid-people-involved-in-a-dangerous-situation concept for all its worth, and what deliciously funny milk it is. Particularly standout moments are the funeral of Derek’s flatmates, where his “eugoogly” is interrupted by Hansel’s entrance, his attempts to find his roots in the coal mines and reconnect with his father (played by Jon Voight) and brothers, the dimwitted duo using their makeup knowledge to sneak into an office building undetected, and the surreal brainwashing sequence at Mugatu’s secret “day spa”.
What sticks with you most from the film, however, are the myriad quotable lines, expressions such as “eugoogly”, “D-A-I-Y-E spa” and “having the black lung” sure to find their way into your everyday vernacular. You’ll find it hard to not associate hearing Wham’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ with a sudden craving for orange mocha frappucinos, or be able to look at a scale model of a building without declaring it a centre for ants, and demanding it be at least… three times bigger. Let’s just hope that the recently announced sequel, helmed by Justin Theroux, will provide as enjoyably goofy an experience, and as many brilliantly braindead quotes as the original. One thing is for sure, Derek and Hansel won’t have gotten any smarter in the 14 years since we met them.