Ben Stiller’s third directorial feature, Zoolander (2001), makes an even larger shift towards straight-up comedy. His cynical touches of social commentary remain, but the core narrative is much more exaggerated and deliberately silly than anything undertaken in The Cable Guy (1996). The largest influence here is the lucrative Austin Powers films driven by star Mike Myers and director Jay Roach: catch-phrases, outlandish characters, and an approach to narrative bordering on sketch comedy.
Here Stiller himself plays Derek Zoolander, world-famous male model and the subject of a “Manchurian Candidate”-styled plot to assassinate the Malaysian Prime Minister. Manipulated by fashion design legend Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell) but aided by fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson) and journalist Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), Zoolander has mere days to uncover the conspiracy before Mugatu’s brainwashing will turn him into a murderer.
Of Stiller’s three directorial features reviewed so far, this is far and away the least ambitious. Its scattershot approach to comedy results in as many misses as hits, and while some jokes fail to land there is always another attempt running straight after it. Its September 2001 American release, a little over two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that shook the USA, arguably gave it an audience a little amenable to distraction and laughs than perhaps the film deserves. It is funny, and brings a level of broad appeal, but when lined up against Austin Powers it does feel underwhelming by comparison.
The film seems a particularly family-oriented affair, with Stiller not only taking a lead role in one of his films for the first time but also casting his real-life wife Christine Taylor as female lead Matilda and his own father Jerry Stiller as Zoolander’s agent Maury Ballstein. Add in close collaborator and friend Owen Wilson (whom Stiller directed in The Cable Guy and TV pilot Heat Vision & Jack), and it all felt a little too much like nepotism at time. It led some contemporary critics label the film a vanity project – which is a pity, since it is hardly Stiller’s fault that he was born into, married, and befriended a pretty impressive depth of talent. The use of Will Ferrell as the film’s villain seems like a strong match, with both Stiller and Ferrell building their profile and talent roughly in parallel with one another. Other small roles by the likes of David Duchovny, Milla Jovovich, and even pop musician David Bowie all add to the film’s general appeal.
Zoolander‘s central plot – the attempted assassination of Malaysia’s Prime Minister – is driven by the issue of developing world sweatshops and child labour, reflecting Stiller’s typical social awareness when putting together his films. This time around it feels a little bluntly on the nose, and of course his broader target of the global fashion industry is regularly like shooting fish in a barrel; it is already deeply ludicrous all on its own without comic actors making fun of it.
Zoolander is a perfectly enjoyable film in and of itself, but coming after Stiller’s exemplary bleak work on The Cable Guy (1996) it seems slightly disappointing. That was a top-tier film of its type, whereas Zoolander simply feels a half-decent example of its own. It is amusing but, like its title character, inordinately superficial.