on September 28, 2001 by Wade Major
Even as Ben Stiller's value as an actor has soared, his once-promising directing career has, until recently, been largely dormant, the luster of 1994's "Reality Bites" all but erased amid the fallout of 1996's "The Cable Guy." That wholly unjustified overreaction (a $60 million gross was apparently "too little" for a Jim Carrey movie) can now thankfully be dismissed thanks to Stiller's triumphant return to both sides of the camera in "Zoolander." An outrageous over-the-top comedy that blends elements of "Austin Powers" with "The Manchurian Candidate," among others, "Zoolander" is precisely the kind of escapist silliness that American audiences will likely want to see.

   Ostensibly a spoof of male models and the fashion industry, "Zoolander" also takes broad swipes at everything from spy and action films to the entire modern cult of celebrity. Stiller stars in the title role as Derek Zoolander, a legendary male model of equally legendary stupidity whose swollen ego suffers a fatal blow when he fails to win a fourth consecutive Male Model of the Year award, the trophy instead going to his golden-locked arch-rival Hansel (Owen Wilson). Believing that there must be more to life than "being really, really good looking," Zoolander briefly retires and makes an unsuccessful attempt to return to his family's coal-mining roots.

   Behind the scenes, however, a diabolical plot is being hatched to which Zoolander will be integral. The new president of Malaysia has vowed to put an end to child labor sweatshops, thereby threatening the entire fashion industry and jeopardizing the diabolical machinations of evil fashion mogul Mugatu (Will Ferrell). Mugatu knows that to assassinate the president he will need a trained, brainwashed assassin--an empty shell that can be programmed, configured and triggered. Basically, someone just like Derek Zoolander.

   As if that weren't enough, there's also a love angle involving a Time Magazine reporter (Stiller's real-life wife Christine Taylor), a catwalk parade of celebrity cameos and an endless stream of pop culture references so fast and furious that even repeat viewings may not reveal them all. Some of the references are so obscure--such as the naming of Ferrell's character after a "Star Trek" monster--that many viewers may not get them at all. Ordinarily, the greatest challenge with broad comedy is simply sustaining the energy. In the case of "Zoolander," that task goes to the other extreme; by the end, audiences may be too exhausted to laugh any more. It's a minor flaw in a movie that has so much going for it and which pays off a much higher percentage of its gags than even the similarly ambitious "Austin Powers" pictures.

   The best thing to emerge from "Zoolander," though, is a confirmation of Stiller as a bona-fide triple-threat artist, a savvy actor/writer/director whose fingers are solidly on the pop culture pulse of America. Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Milla Jovovich, Jerry Stiller, David Duchovny and Jon Voight. Directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Drake Sather & Ben Stiller and John Hamburg. Produced by Scott Rudin, Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld. A Paramount release. Comedy. Rated PG for sexual content and drug references. Running time: 89 min

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