You know, there’s more to life than being really, really ridiculously good-looking. Sometimes you need a great fashion sense as well. Ben Stiller may dominate Zoolander as writer, director and idiotic lead, but Will Ferrell is as reliable as ever at turning up and stealing the show. He has form in this area, with a blackly comic few minutes in Wedding Crashers, but it’s his outrageous, larger-than-life performance as fashion mogul Mugatu in Zoolander that really defines the film.
Where Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) operates as the unwitting straight man of the comedy around him with his deadpan pout and accidental idiocy, Mugatu is the mad, beating heart of the fashion industry that Stiller lampoons so successfully. First of all there are Mugatu’s looks. While Derek may have Blue Steel, Ferrari and Le Tigre, Mugatu’s outfits are equally ridiculous, and he walks on screen looking at various points like a psychedelic Andy Warhol and a Southern colonel in a fetish club. While Zoolander looks relatively stylish in his outlandish costumes, Mugatu pushes the bizarre designs of the fashion world to the extreme. There’s no better man for this than Will Ferrell, an actor who specialises in grounding all manner of absurdity with the straightest of faces. Many other actors would be put off by the sheer silliness of the role, but he commits completely and makes Mugatu the film’s most memorable character.
Such is the impression he makes that it’s hard to believe he’s only in the film for about 15 minutes. Barring a few brief appearances, his first major scene is opposite Zoolander at the infamous introduction of The Centre For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Who Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too. The scene belongs to Derek with his outraged response – “What is this? A centre for ants?” – but it’s made all the sweeter by Mugatu’s brilliant reaction. He cowers with his permanently distressed face before agreeing to Derek’s demands that the school needs to be “at least… three times bigger than this.” It’s a masterclass in comedy acting from both parties.
The classic Ferrell skill for absurdity is really unleashed a few minutes later though, when Derek is brainwashed to kill the Malaysian Prime Minister. He’s strapped into what looks like a futuristic chrome version of the machine used in A Clockwork Orange‘s Ludovico Technique and forced to watch a surreal video presented by Mugatu and soundtracked to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. Ferrell’s disembodied head floats around a technicolour vortex, giggling and shouting, as miniature versions act out martial arts moves in the margins.
He reappears dressed as ‘Little Cletus’, a small child in a bonnet licking a lollipop who goes on to explain that: “I’m just a little kid who wants you to know the truth about child labour laws. They’re silly and outdated.” It’s a section of the film that’s obviously mental, but there’s no one better to take it to such heights than Will Ferrell. Arguably the scene is made by the editing, but Ferrell’s gurning, poodle-haired mug has a terrifying and hilarious quality all of its own.
Mugatu is the maddest thing about Zoolander, but he also brings it crashing down to earth in an amazing rant that ends the movie. After his attempt to brainwash Derek to kill the Malaysian Prime Minister fails, Mugatu’s entire life, career and reputation are on the line. His response is to point out the absurdity of the entire film and the truth behind Derek’s iconic looks: “Who cares about Derek Zoolander? The man only has one look for chrissakes. Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigre? They’re the same face! Doesn’t anyone notice this?”
Derek Zoolander may be the lead of this film, but without Will Ferrell as Mugatu it would be, well… just a little bit boring. In the male model’s world of chrome, sharp suits and super-serious posing, the whirlwind of colour, noise and energy that is Mugatu brings everything to life. Every great hero needs their enemy, and there is no one more perfect for the ridiculous world of male model Derek Zoolander than Mugatu. He’s so hot right now.