Ben Stiller’s hilarious new comedy “Zoolander” owes a lot to the principle that something only half-funny on paper can turn out wonderful in the delivery.
“You is talkin’ loco and I like it” doesn’t sound like much of a line, but coming out of Owen Wilson — a man whose every word, nay every thought, is funny — it is comedy gold. Similarly, maybe you think Stiller’s pouty-handsome male model face will stop being funny after he does it a few times. Wrong. He pulls that face dozens of times in “Zoolander,” and it never stops being ticklish.
This is an exuberantly silly, devilishly stupid film where the humor is carefully and smartly concocted to seem dumber than it is. Just as being serious about one’s comedy seems incongruous but is vitally important, using skill and intelligence to manufacture ridiculous plots and characters is also a fine art.
Stiller (who directed and co-wrote the film) stars as Derek Zoolander, the world’s top male model who is now on a decline, having recently been passed up for Model of the Year by the single-monikered Hansel (Owen Wilson). Both are dumb as posts, shallow as mud and utterly, utterly self-centered.
They are bitter enemies at first, though Derek has bigger fish to fry. Fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell) has brainwashed Derek and programmed him to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia, who has called for an end to child labor, which will ruin Mugatu’s sweatshop industry.
There is abundant satire of the modeling industry, though most of it eschews the insightful or clever in favor of the good old-fashioned broad, giggly stuff. That models are stereotypically dim-witted is a given; it’s the specific examples of it here that make us snicker in spite of ourselves. Derek mispronounces “eulogy” as “eugoogly” and later refers to the prime minister of Malaysia as the “prime rib of Propecia”; Hansel is thrown by the idea of files being kept “in” a computer.
Stiller and Wilson simply couldn’t be funnier. Their characters are dead serious, which makes them laughable. If the models had any idea how dumb they were, the joke would be lost. Stiller’s dad Jerry Stiller is also enjoyable as Derek’s agent, Maury Ballstein. Ben’s wife Christine Taylor is a fine straightman as magazine reporter Matilda, but she gets run over by the madness that surrounds her.
It is impressive that “Zoolander” is all about male models, yet doesn’t have a single gay joke. I’m not opposed to gay jokes; what’s impressive is that they chose the less obvious gags instead. (Not that this is necessarily a high-brow film. At one point, Jerry Stiller does say, as his reason for retiring, “I’ve got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories.”)
Will Ferrell is an absolute scream as the evil Mugatu. He wears a corset. Why? Because it’s funny to see Will Ferrell wearing a corset.
At one point, Derek Zoolander is in a TV commercial, dressed like a mermaid (“mer-MAN,” he insists). He swims up to the camera and says, “Moisture is the essence of wetness.” That moment has the obvious verbal absurdity, plus the ridiculous image of Ben Stiller with a fish’s bottom half, plus that wonderful Derek Zoolander pouty-handsome male model face. Oh, and it’s being viewed in a bar frequented by coal miners. All the basics of comedy rolled into one moment, and the whole movie is full of them. What an enormously funny film.
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