- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001

"Zoolander" obviously wants to be funny and ingratiating, but its success level is spotty at best. Even when scenes work, their effectiveness is so ephemeral that you never feel confident that Ben Stiller can sustain much of anything with a pretext that began as a beau geste at a televised awards ceremony and may be better suited to the occasional TV skit.
Mr. Stiller invented the character of Derek Zoolander, a male model of limited intelligence and limited flash his poses, or "looks," are indistinguishable variations on a single dopey look, with cheeks sucked in and lips pursed for the annual fashion industry awards show telecast by the music video channel VH1. He and two writing cronies have attempted to string out the gag for feature length, under the direction of Mr. Stiller himself.
Misjudgments begin with the prologue, which weds harmless, oblivious Derek to an overscaled international intrigue plot. A conspiracy of greed and ruthlessness links Far Eastern despots and garment industry big shots who share a vested interest in slave labor; they plot to exploit clueless Derek as a Manchurian candidate, brainwashed to assassinate a political reformer from Malaysia.
The decision to wed Derek to an Austin Powers sort of format looks ill-advised. A handful of documentary features about the fashion world have been more diverting than "Zoolander," so it might have been smarter to keep the title character as close to the profession as possible.
That Mr. Stiller bears little resemblance to a plausible male model might even have paid dividends if he were surrounded by authentic examples of the breed and its milieu. Clearly, he doesn't trust himself to sustain hilarious human interest, because the movie begins relying on a sidekick, the droll and easygoing Owen Wilson, cast as a rival called Hansel. He doesn't look the part, either, but he's more relaxed about faking it than the ostensible leading man.
Mr. Stiller gets an excellent brainstorm while returning to the VH1 awards show. Expecting to be chosen male model of the year for a fourth straight time, Derek is so self-absorbed that he isn't even listening when Hansel is announced as the winner; Derek strides up to the podium and goes into his acceptance speech, provoking embarrassment, mockery and pity on a massive scale. Later that night, he gets to see himself described as a "confused loser" while the humiliation is replayed on a gigantic video screen in Times Square.
Initially, he takes refuge in a facetiously invoked coal-mining town in southern New Jersey. He even presumes to join dad Jon Voight and brother Vince Vaughn (a silent cameo) in the mines. This interlude fizzles before Mr. Stiller can return to New York City and trifle with rehabilitation inside the fashion industry.
An unscrupulous designer played by Will Ferrell hires the disgraced Derek as part of the assassination scheme. A friendly Hansel and a sympathetic Time reporter, Matilda played by Christine Taylor, Mr. Stiller's spouse rally around to protect him.
Miss Taylor begins showing the strain of a role that obliges her to play anxious, talkative straight man to a largely inarticulate and far from charismatic suitor. Mr. Stiller could probably have done more to help out by elaborating on Derek's grammatical and rhetorical blunders, admirably expressed in the following peevish exit line: "I'd really like to continue talking about this conversation."
The senior Stiller, Jerry, has a conspicuous supporting role as a villainous confederate, Maury Ballstein, an irascible old designer preoccupied with prostate trouble. Numerous familiar faces drop in for fleeting appearances: Winona Ryder, Natalie Portman, Garry Shandling, Claudia Schiffer, David Bowie, Donald Trump.
Mr. Stiller's best performances tend to be in self-conscious and repressed roles for other directors: "Flirting With Disaster," "There's Something About Mary," "Mystery Men," "Meet the Parents." He may be spreading his talents thin by attempting to direct himself as a flamboyant goof. Neither the direction nor the performance gets the job done trying to keep up silly pretenses.

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TITLE: "Zoolander"
RATING: PG-13 ("Sexual content and drug references," according to the MPAA)
CREDITS: Directed by Ben Stiller. Screenplay by Drake Sather, Mr. Stiller and John Hamburg.
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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