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Despite expectations, 'Zoolander' is one unfunny animal

| Friday, Sept. 28, 2001

'Zoolander'
Director: Ben Stiller

Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell

MPAA Rating: PG-13, for sexual content and drug references

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  • Supermodel Derek Zoolander has no doubt he'll win his fourth straight Male Model of the Year award.

    He's dominated the fashion industry, starred in advertising spots around the world and gathered legions of fans.

    So Zoolander (Ben Stiller) doesn't even realize it when the announcer calls the name of superhot newcomer Hansel (Owen Wilson) instead. Thinking he's won yet again, he obliviously prances to the stage and begins an acceptance speech before realizing he's been dethroned, humiliating himself in front of the entire fashion world.

    Dejected and questioning the meaning of his existence, Zoolander heads home, determined to leave modeling forever: 'I'm pretty sure there's more to life than just being really, really good looking, and I plan on finding out what that is.'

    Unfortunately, disappointment in 'Zoolander' isn't limited to the sentiments of its empty-headed but full-hearted hero.

    Although 'Zoolander' seems to have all the pieces it needs to deliver Stiller another hit comedy, they never come together to evoke more than a smile or a chuckle.

    The off-kilter story, mixed with Stiller's hapless-hero charm, sounds like it might be enough to propel the laughs: Zoolander, down on himself and looking for redemption, is preyed upon by evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell). Mugatu, who depends on child labor to produce clothes for his fashion empire, wants to brainwash Zoolander into assassinating the leader of Malaysia, who has pledged to wipe out sweatshops. When Time magazine reporter Matilda (Christine Taylor, Stiller's wife) discovers the plan, she whisks Zoolander away to the last place Mugatu would look - the outlandish hideaway of rival model Hansel. Zoolander, Hansel and Matilda team up against Mugatu and his assistant Katinka (Milla Jovovich) to foil the plot.

    The actors chosen for the roles - 'Saturday Night Live's' Ferrell, the oddly engaging Wilson and Jerry Stiller (Ben's dad) as Zoolander's agent - make sense. Their slightly off-mainstream personas fit perfectly with the quirky story they're enlisted to tell. But it seems everyone's talents are underserved in this film.

    Stiller has proved he's charming and funny in his biggest hits - 'There's Something About Mary' and 'Meet the Parents.' Those two films made good on their promises of belly-laughs and upped expectations for another round of hilarity. And portraying the ultimate in male model beauty, Stiller's not-quite-so-good-looking mug - along with Wilson's bumpy-nosed surfer-dude looks - are a clever part of the joke.

    Even the scenes that seem, on paper or in the retelling, to be surefire laughs, don't hit the mark. For example, Zoolander and Hansel challenge each other to a 'Walk-Off' - the fashion world's equivalent of a street fight - while Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' plays and David Bowie (appearing as himself) judges. But the scene is not funny in the rollicking-good-time way one would expect. Zoolander's brief pilgrimage back home - to the coal fields of south New Jersey - to work with his father (Jon Voigt) and brothers rarely evoked more than a hint of a smile.

    There are a few clever moments that offer at least some redemption. Allusions to and spoofs of scenes from films such as '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'The Godfather' reward film-lovers. And David Duchovny - formerly the conspiracy-theorist FBI Agent Mulder on 'The X-Files' - is perfectly cast in a cameo as a 'Deep Throat' sort of character, a former hand model who warns Matilda and Zoolander of Mugatu's plot.

    But a few moments of sparkle don't outweigh the disappointment of seeing Stiller and company in a vehicle that doesn't support the weight of their comedic talents.

    Jolie Williamson can be reached at (412) 320-7822 or jwilliamson@tribweb.com .

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