The advertising copy describes the doltish title character in Ben Stiller’s spy spoof “Zoolander” as having “1% Brain Activity,” but that percentage seems a trifle high for the movie itself. The “Ace Ventura” and “Austin Powers” franchises have, to be sure, set a very low standard for parodies of this kind, and this dismally dumb new effort belongs in such company. Based on a character the writer-director-star created for a fashion awards show, the picture–which has the imbecilic male model involved in a dastardly plot to assassinate a Malaysian leader (for reasons we won’t even begin to explain, but are remarkably tasteless)–shares the same fate as the many misguided attempts to expand SNL sketches into features: what might be amusing for a couple of minutes quickly pales when stretched agonizingly over ninety, especially when the plot hatched to showcase a comic character designed for a short segment proves as dopey and familiar as this one.
As with most of Stiller’s material, “Zoolander” has a high quotient of the bizarre, but unfortunately in this case that doesn’t translate into a large number of laughs. The title figure is purportedly the world’s number one supermodel, a dimwitted boob who flounces about in a snakeskin suits and other outrageous outfits and sports a killer “look.” Devastated when he’s dethroned by newcomer Hansel (Owen Wilson) in a “runway walk-off” (a sequence which ends on a particularly grotesque note) and disowned by his coal-mining father (Jon Voight), our hero takes a job with weirdo designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell), only to learn that his new employer has embroiled him in a fiendish scheme that will make him the patsy in an economically-motivated murder. He’s aided by a magazine reporter (Christine Taylor) who’d done a hostile piece on him but now begins to find him sweet instead of merely stupid. Taylor, of course, is Stiller’s real-life wife, and he makes the film into even more of a family affair by casting his father Ben as Zoolander’s blustering, foul-mouthed agent, his mother Anne Meara as a union protester, and even his sister Amy as a camp-follower of Hansel’s.
This results in the whole clan playing and decaying together, since the picture, even at a mere 89 minutes, seems endlessly padded without providing much merriment along the way. Its major problem is that Stiller, as often when he’s at center stage, confuses creepiness with hilarity; he can summon up some audience sympathy when playing harried schmucks in tenuously credible sitcom situations (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Meet the Parents”), but in outrageous stuff like this his wild-eyed intensity is more scary than endearing. Mike Myers might not be the brightest of comic bulbs, but he finally realized that his “Sprockets” character of Dieter, whose slimy persona could garner uneasy chortles in small doses, wouldn’t work in feature form. Over the long haul Zoolander is likely to make you equally queasy. Compounding the feeling is the presence of Ferrell. The SNL regular specializes in characters so strange that they’re more likely to disturb than entertain. That’s certainly the case here: Mugatu, with his platinum blond hair and prissy attitude, makes your skin crawl. It’s difficult to laugh under such conditions. Wilson manages a few moments of charm–a commodity in low supply, unhappily–as Zoolander’s rival (who turns out to be a good guy in the end), but Jerry Stiller comes on so strong as Maury Ballstein (a gruesome name for the representative of male models!) that he makes Rip Torn’s turn in “Freddy Got Fingered” look subtle by comparison. And Taylor is pretty much a cipher.
There are occasional spurts of mild amusement in Stiller’s script–a clever writer like him can’t help but come up with a few good lines and bits of business over the span of an hour and a half– and a raft of cameos–by David Bowie, Billy Zane, David Duchovny (in a takeoff on his Fox Mulder persona) and many others–may please viewers in much the same way as those in Mike Todd’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” did back in 1956. The costume design by David C. Robinson certainly succeeds in accentuating the hideousness of the world being satirized, and the numerous shots of the New York skyline happily avoid appearances by the WTC towers. On the other hand, some of the gags prove really repulsive–one, early on, involving the fate of our hero’s three dumb-as-post roommates is quite appalling–and the liberal use of ghastly ’80s tunes by luminaries like Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (“Relax” reappears here in even longer form than in last week’s “Glitter”–what a revival!) on the soundtrack verges on torture.
Maybe the fashion scene is just too weird in reality to serve as the backdrop for successful screen comedy. After all, even Robert Altman bombed out in 1994’s “Pret-a-Porter” (aka “Ready to Wear”), and Stiller is no Altman. In the end all “Zoolander” manages to do is make you yearn for a character like Inspector Clouseau–a blundering boob, but one who could both get you to like him and make you laugh. Stiller’s creation, unfortunately, manages to do neither. Perhaps if the movie were about Hansel….