It’s just so easy to make fun of fashion models. They wear ridiculous clothing and even more ridiculous facial expressions. A lot of them have body types that one would hardly aspire to achieve were it not for professional incentive. And enough of them have come across thick as bricks in interviews that one can be forgiven for thinking that maybe they’re all not exactly genius material. There is a golden rule that in comedy, one should never punch down, but Ben Stiller decided that he would make an exception in Zoolander, a farcical satire of the fashion industry that is easily one of my favorite comedies of all time.
Ben Stiller is the world’s most popular male model, but is so dumb that if he were any more so, you’d have to water him twice a week. Owen Wilson is his rival Hansel (“Hansel. He’s so hot right now. Hansel.”) another beautiful dimwit who is suddenly more popular than Zoolander, sending Derek into an existential crisis. Will Ferrell is Mugatu, an evil fashion designer tasked with brainwashing a male model into a Manchurian Candidate-style assassin to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who is outlawing child labor in his country. Christine Taylor is Matilda Jeffries, a journalist whose scathing profile of Zoolander help secure his downfall, but she feels guilty about it and seeks to help him against Mugatu. Along the way, there are orange mocha frappuccinos, a tragic gasoline fight, a school for ants, the world’s tiniest mobile phone, a mer-MAN, a lot of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, breakdance fighting, and finally, the debut of Magnum, the new look that will revolutionize male modeling once more as well as halt throwing stars in mid-air.
All throughout this thing is the kind of lowbrow, madcap humor that you’d expect from the likes of Stiller, Wilson and Ferrell and everybody else those guys tended to work with for the better part of the last 15 years. It’s like along the way, they created this secret network of talent that made a ton of movies which all vaguely felt drawn from the same comedic well, but they’re amusing enough that you don’t really care. Anyway, there are two moments that really stand out for me in Zoolander, a movie that makes me giggle like an idiot pretty much from the opening credits to the closing ones.
The first is a scene when Zoolander encounters Hansel at a party and challenges him to a “walk-off,” which is basically male models playing a game of horse, except instead of mimicking each other’s basketball shots, they copy each other’s signature walkway struts in front of a crowd. The whole thing is officiated by David Bowie, because OF COURSE DAVID BOWIE. Billy Zane, in one of the movies umpteen celebrity cameos comes on as one of Zoolander’s friends, and tries to dissuade him from a challenge he can’t win. Zoolander won’t hear it, leading Zane to utter with all the dramatic gravitas he can muster, “It’s a walk-off!…It’s a walk-off.” That moment just destroys me because it practically breaks the fourth wall and tells us that yes, they know how freaking stupid all this is, and no, they are not going to let up for a moment. It’s like when a joke is funny, stops being funny, then becomes funny again. That’s this whole movie. And the walk-off scene cranks it up as high as it’ll go.
The other scene at the end, during Mugatu’s ludicrous plan to assassinate the Malaysian Prime Minster at a bogus fashion show. Hansel is off finding information to confirm the plot but is too damned stupid to turn on a computer, leaving Derek to save the day on his own. When Derek’s brainwashing wears off and he doesn’t kill the PM, Mugatu goes berserk and insults Derek’s modeling skills. You can browbeat the man’s eugoogolizing, but not his modeling technique, and there is this Popeye moment in which Zoolander triumphantly gains whatever strength he needs to prevail. He manages to turn left, and he busts out his new facial expression Magnum, which is so blinding it stuns the room and saves the Prime Minister. But before all that happens, as Mugatu blows his cork at Zoolander, he screams at the top of his lungs a line that has been quoted at least a billion times since this thing came out: “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”
That line is a vintage bit of Ferrell-style absurdity that works better than it really has any right to. But delivered at this point, and in that way, it becomes something fantastic, a bit like the Billy Zane moment during the walk-off, earlier. It’s the movie recognizing that this movie really has been as absurd as it feels, giving voice to everyone in the audience who couldn’t quite get into it. They probably felt like they were taking crazy pills, too, and even though that’s hardly a moment of cinematic greatness, it’s a moment of truth. Any comedy that seeks laughs in the way that this one does knows it’s going to leave at least a few people behind. Most movies just accept those losses and move on. This one at least has the character to acknowledge those suffering patiently in the theatre, and throws its skeptics a bone. More of that, please.