In the theater where I saw this movie, the audience was laughing throughout. It's not entirely clear how much of this was the quality of the movie, how much that people obviously needed to laugh.
The premise is great. An evil band of international fashion designers want to kill the prime minister of Malaysia after he announces he's raising the minimum wage of sweatshop workers who make designer clothes for Americans. Apparel prices will skyrocket. They threaten top designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) with destruction if he doesn't find some vapid, gullible male model to do the deed at the annual fashion show, which the prime minister plans to attend.
"Fabio?" suggests one of the villains? "Too smart," is the decision. The obvious choice for Mugatu is famous, shallow, supermodel Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), the four-time Male Model of the Year winner, soon to be embittered and unseated by arch-rival Hansel, played brilliantly by Owen Wilson. Female supermodels have long been the target of satirists, but this is the most head-on assault yet on the men.
Zoolander is likeable, stupid, self-absorbed, and manipulable. He gets absolutely nothing about the world beyond the fact that he is "wonderfully, incredibly good-looking." He has his verbal mannerisms. He's about to get an education in how the world really works. He and Hansel vie for top male model spot, including a hilarious "walk-off" on a basement runway to decide who's on top. Neither has ever turned on a computer.
Zoolander comes from a character Stiller helped create for a sketch he did on the l996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. If any event or industry is ripe for vicious parody, it's this one. Stiller is merciless. There's a terrific scene up front involving Stiller's gorgeous but bubble-headed roommates playing at a gas station in the style of stupid TV ads. They get their just desserts here, though the movie is as good-natured as it is biting.
Derek's agent, Maury Ballstein, is played by Jerry Stiller, Ben's dad, who is great as the crude, pompadoured head of the world's biggest modeling agency.
There are targets, spoofs and cultural references galore in Zoolander, including a play on The Manchurian Candidate spot-on blasts at the way the media worships the glam/celebrity culture, and the way in which pop culture can sometimes patronize the people who worship it. David Duchovny does an uncredited walk-on as a conspiratorial ex-model whose face is never shown, but whose hand -- used in cosmetic ads -- is instantly recognizable to Zoolander from catalogs.
American culture, one of the most powerful forces on the planet, is the big target here, especially its consuming valuelessness. Stiller grasps the cultural irony for many of us. As much as we love pop culture, we also recognize that it is becoming sillier, greedier and less honest and creative by the day. It diminishes us, he suggests, as well as the people who create it. Stiller sees popular culture as corrupt and infanticizing, celebrating trendiness above all. In worshipping the empty and the vapid, he seems to be saying, we can't help but become more empty and vapid ourselves. He's got a point.
This movie is wonderfully weird and funny. Ferrell's over-the-top Mogatu is great, as are the Finnish dwarfs and freakazoid orgy. The movie has a score of cameo appearances from fashion world muck-a-mucks, models and celebrities, but the modeling culture is only a stand-in for the celebrity machine that has engulfed publishing, music, TV, film and the arts.
This is a scathingly wonderful movie, as amusing as it is on target.