In theory, Derek Zoolander is the right man for the job of cheering up a laugh-starved country looking for distraction from grief. He’s a supermodel so dumb he doesn’t realize supermodels aren’t super any- more — haven’t been, in fact, since movie stars, news babes, and the cast of ”Friends” became the mannequins of choice on fashion runways and magazine covers. He’s spectacularly stupid. And as personified with manic energy by Ben Stiller in Zoolander, the pinup boy’s square-jawed yet androgynously pretty, Prince-like puss is capable of running the gamut of emotions from A to — well, it’s stuck on A, a moue meant to convey sexy intensity that instead suggests intestinal distress.
In theory, ”Zoolander” (which Stiller also directed) is some 90 minutes of elaborate comedic silliness involving a nefarious scheme to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia — something to do with cheap overseas labor. And so, between attending to his toilette and working on his sashay (he calls his most famous pose ”Blue Steel”), Derek Z is brainwashed into doing the killing — in a kicky twist on ”The Manchurian Candidate” — by rococo design queen Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell, in a triangular wig that’s its own kicky twist on the coif of irony-foreswearing ”Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter) and braying garmento Maury Ballstein (Ben’s papa, Jerry Stiller, in full chest hair?and?gold necklace salute).
There’s also a mildly elaborate subplot involving a dust-up between Zoolander and his vapid, equally airheaded professional rival, a fair-haired yutz named Hansel, played by Owen Wilson with his patented droll drawl. There are class jokes and sex jokes, jokes of excess and jokes of unbridled bad taste. At one point, Maury Ballstein kvetches, inevitably, that his prostate is the size of a honeydew.
In theory, ”Zoolander” is ”Pret-à-Porter” on laughing gas. In practice, however, the movie is an ill-fitting suit of gags, too long in the crotch even at 90 minutes. And the bad tailoring has nothing to do with the fashions of these anxious times. Au contraire, America needs Stiller, who’s great at playing guys filled with the gas of self-absorption, and whose welcome subspecialty is skewering showbiz fabulousness.
Indeed, as a model of comedy, Derek Zoolander is a precious specimen of shallowness so untouched by the real world that he ought to be placed in a time capsule along with David Spade’s supercilious showbiz desk jockey; we probably won’t see their kind again any time soon. Invented by Stiller in a previous century — Derek Zoolander made his debut on the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards — the character was proudly out-of-date in the new decade even when production began.
No, ”Zoolander” doesn’t wear well because, like so many other saggy TV-driven sketches already hanging in the closet of feature-film duds, it’s been stretched beyond wearability; even with the director hustling his cast like a fashion-show martinet, there’s only so much cartoon emoting to be done before we’re anticipating a TV commercial break. As characters who embody certain easy-to-mock traits almost comforting in their crude (and even cruel) caricature — the pea-brained model, the mincing fashion tyrant, the uncouth Jewish purveyor of schmattes — the dramatis personae make cute collectibles. As characters with whom to assemble a moving picture — oy, just forget it.
Which Stiller eventually does, tossing aside story development and relying instead on an impressive but progressively more self-congratulatory procession of celebrity actors — and just plain celebrities — to amuse and distract. Jon Voight and Vince Vaughn play Derek’s coal-mining father and brother, who at first disdain the wayward, sissified Zoolander but eventually burst with pride borrowed from ”Billy Elliot.” Milla Jovovich plays a slinky operative. David Duchovny is a hand model?slash?rogue intelligence operative. Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman play themselves — stars starstruck by the supermodel. Andy Dick, Garry Shandling, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sandra Bernhard, and Stiller’s mom, Anne Meara, appear, sometimes just long enough to announce, hey, Stiller got Winona Ryder to say a line!
In an ungainly models-are-people-too sub-subplot, Zoolander — that most unsizzling and asexual of sex objects — finds himself really, unironically attracted to Matilda, a pretty, ”serious” ”Time” magazine reporter who interviews him. (She’s blond but she wears eyeglasses — that kind of pretty seriousness and serious prettiness.) Matilda is played by Christine Taylor, Stiller’s real and unironic wife, and hers is a thankless role, representing all of humanity’s hopes for salvation from excess and fashion tragedy in the person of one loving, thoughtful, attractive, and smart-but-not-threatening woman who appreciates the man rather than the famous animal in Zoolander. Is that what Ben Stiller is trying to say? That all you need is love? His Blue Steel gaze admits to nothing.