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Should I Watch..? 'Zoolander' (2001)

Updated on April 7, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for the film
Poster for the film | Source

What's the big deal?

Zoolander is a satirical comedy film released in 2001 and was directed, co-written and starring Ben Stiller. Stiller plays male model Derek Zoolander who unwittingly finds himself caught up in an assassination plot. The film is based on a couple of short films written by Stiller and Drake Sather for the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1996 and 1997. As well as Stiller, the movie's cast features Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Christine Taylor, former model Milla Jovovich and Stiller's father Jerry Stiller. The film was warmly received by critics and went on to take over $60 million worldwide. However, the film was banned in Malaysia and Singapore as being culturally insensitive and also received some last-minute editing after being released less than three weeks after the September 11th attacks. The film was also subject to a plagiarism row with the author Bret Easton Ellis.


3 stars for Zoolander

What's it about?

Having quickly developed a rivalry with male model Hansel after losing his Male Model Of The Year award to him, dim-witted Derek Zoolander finds his reputation further tarnished after a poison-pen piece by journalist Matilda Jeffries. Distraught, Derek announces his retirement from fashion but soon receives an offer to appear on the catwalk for fashion designer Mugatu's next show. Derek jumps at the chance, despite Mugatu having never wanted to work with him before, but Matilda smells a rat and begins digging a little deeper.

Sure enough, Mugatu is using Derek as a pawn in a deadly high-stakes game. With the progressive Prime Minister of Malaysia looking to abolish child slave labour, Mugatu plans to brain-wash Derek into becoming an assassin during Mugatu's show and killing the Prime Minister, who is due to attend. But Matilda is on the case and with the help of a shadowy hand model, Derek soon learns of Mugatu's terrifying plan. Can Derek break Mugatu's programming or is he destined to become a killer?


What's to like?

It's about time someone took a swipe at the fashion industry and I can think of few films to do it better than Zoolander with its absurd outlook on life and the world beyond. Stiller's goofy creation is a genuinely funny character, even if it does play up to certain stereotypes about male models. Stiller delivers a performance that charms as much as it entertains and is perfectly suited to a world that often seems incomprehensible to those of us trapped outside. He also looks like he's having an absolute ball in the picture, which also warms us to the character. Wilson also has plenty of laughs as the spaced-out Hansel.

The film's sheer number of cameos keeps things interesting as you literally have no idea who is going to pop up next. The film's story might not sustain for a full duration (it's over way too quickly) but the film's comedy - despite being hit-and-miss on occasion - is perfectly pitched at a world where someone thought that sending Bjork to the Academy Awards in 2001 wearing a swan wrapped around her neck was a great idea. It might may be the wrong side of stupid but the film has plenty of laughs for those in the right mood.

As the hair-brained idiot male model, Stiller is surprisingly effective and gives one of his best performances to date.
As the hair-brained idiot male model, Stiller is surprisingly effective and gives one of his best performances to date. | Source

Fun Facts

  • Unsurprisingly, Stiller found parts for a number of his family - his wife (Christine Taylor), father (Jerry Stiller), mother (Anne Meara), sister (Amy Stiller) and brother-in-law Mitch Winston all found themselves cast in the movie.
  • Images of the World Trade Centre were edited out of the film after the attacks. Coincidentally, the first TV coverage of 9/11 interrupted a commercial for this film.
  • Zoolander includes a huge number of cameos from the likes of Victoria Beckham, Christian Slater, Tommy Hilfiger, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie, Paris Hilton, Claudia Schiffer, Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace and future US President Donald Trump. Maybe he'd rather you remember his cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.

What's not to like?

Like Bjork's unique style, however, the film is a bit too weird to be properly funny. Take the walk-off between Hansel and Derek backstage, judged by the late David Bowie of all people. The scene didn't make me laugh or further the film's story at all so what was the point? And the story is about as flimsy as a pair of Naomi Campbell's platform heels - with all the talk in the film of child labour and the fashion industry's apparent dependence on it, the film's decision to focus on idiots parading their good looks feels faintly like a cop-out.

I wanted to like Zoolander a bit more than I actually do - technically, there's nothing wrong with the character but I feel that the big screen is not the right format for him. The character feels as though he'd be more at home in a sketch rather than a feature-length film, a bit like Austin Powers after Mike Myers found that the material quickly dried up halfway through the second film and left nothing original for the third. The supporting cast also aren't that great - Duchovny feels as spaced-out as his X-Files character while Ferrell feels underused as Mugatu. The same can also be said of Jovovich who I had completely forgotten was even in the film. Nothing about this film really sticks in your memory - the dialogue lacks that crucial zing that makes you repeat it afterwards and the film's conclusion rubber-stamps how truly daft the whole enterprise really is.

Ferrell's appearance as designer Mugatu is, like much of the film, a bit weird...
Ferrell's appearance as designer Mugatu is, like much of the film, a bit weird... | Source

Should I watch it?

Zoolander is an acceptable comedy that picks a suitably soft target and goes for the jugular. Its humour is more stupid and hit-and-miss than I would have preferred but it's just about worthy of a second attempt (however belatedly) in order to get things absolutely right. I just wished that it had the balls to really get under fashion's skin and ask awkward questions instead of simply mocking its more eccentric personalities.

Great For: undemanding viewers, celebrity spotting, mocking fashion's more ridiculous ideas

Not So Great For: fashionistas, male models, Malaysian audiences

What else should I watch?

To this day, I still maintain that Ben Stiller's best film is There's Something About Mary which works as a gross-out comedy, traditional farce and genuinely romantic picture all rolled into one. Not far behind is his action-comedy parody Tropic Thunder where Stiller teams up with Jack Black and a scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr. as three boneheaded actors in an attempt to film a war film in the midst of an actual war. Think Three Amigos! but with a few more laughs and many more explosions.

Despite being open to a fair amount of ridicule, it would appear that the fashion industry isn't often targeted - presumably because so many stars are reliant on it come awards season. The likes of Prêt-à-Porter and Sacha Baron-Cohen's comedy Brüno didn't exactly set the world alight. Probably the film that gets closest to undermining those in the fashion industry is The Devil Wears Prada which features Meryl Streep's uncanny imitation of the then-editor of Vogue magazine Anna "Nuclear" Wintour, terrorizing office newcomer Anne Hathaway.

Main Cast

Ben Stiller
Derek Zoolander
Owen Wilson
Hansel McDonald
Will Ferrell
Jacobim Mugatu
Christine Taylor
Matilda Jeffries
Milla Jovovich
Katinka Ingabogovinanana
David Duchovny
J. P. Prewitt
Jerry Stiller
Maury Ballstein

Technical Info

Ben Stiller
Drake Sather, Ben Stiller & John Hamburg *
Running Time
89 minutes
Release Date (UK)
30th November, 2001

* story and characters by Drake Sather & Ben Stiller

© 2016 Benjamin Cox


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