Rearview Mirror: “Zoolander”

It’s no Josie and the Pussycats, but the oft-quoted Ben Stiller film sure gave us a laugh when we needed one.

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2021. I’m so happy you’re here.


There’s no way I know of to measure such things, but my guess is that Zoolander has been one of the most quoted movies in America during the 20 years since its release. Phrases like “Derelicte” and “so hot right now” and “Blue Steel” might not elicit the same level of knowing chuckles they once did, but there was a time when “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills” was a common idiom. I suspect it was actually the movie’s lackluster sequel, not the passage of time, that dulled the original’s shine. Despite some obviously dated elements, the fashion satire remains a crowd-pleaser, and re-watching it for this column was easy fun.

The plot—about a vapid male model brainwashed by evil designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) to assassinate the leader of an impoverished country, just the latest in a long line of model-killers advancing the fashion world’s nefarious agenda—is mostly an excuse for silly set pieces like the “walk off” between earthy heartthrob Hansel (Owen Wilson) and polished pretty boy Derek (Ben Stiller), judged by the late David Bowie. Bowie is just one of many, many cameos in the movie, most of which conjure up warm, nostalgic feelings, and one of which is Donald Trump. 

Other elements have gone from “joke” to “cringe” back to “commentary” again, like modeling agent Marty Ballstein (Jerry Stiller) grabbing a female employee’s ass, or Matilda (Christine Taylor, Stiller’s wife at the time in addition to being an actress in her own right) divulging her history of bulimia only to be laughed at by Hansel and Derek, who praise purging as an easy way to drop weight. One scene that could have aged disastrously—Derek uses makeup to change his and Hansel’s skin tone as part of a disguise—uses actors of color as their alter egos. In 2021, this bit would probably just be cut, but in 2001, it might easily have gone differently, and it’s to writer-director Stiller’s credit that he found a workable joke here.

Zoolander is a broad comedy that doesn’t ask viewers to look too closely, but since that’s kind of my job here, I’ll acknowledge that it might have been plagiarized, and that while it gets points (I guess?) for taking an anti-child-labor stance, the movie doesn’t really address it in any meaningful way (to be fair, neither has society), but there is some decent commentary on fashion glamorizing poverty. Also, Ben Stiller, child of Hollywood, recently claimed that the industry is a meritocracy, which doesn’t have anything to do with Zoolander but it was so annoying because I really like Ben Stiller and it’s a stupid take for him to have that no one even asked him about! 

Anyway, let’s talk about 9/11. When Zoolander hit theaters, America was desperate to laugh. Even if it wasn’t a box office smash or a critical darling, I think the film benefited from it being the thing there was to do that wasn’t depressing.

It reminds me of the recent Barb and Star, which arrived during Pandemic Winter and provided a brief escape to a sunny, COVID-free beach where, not dissimilarly, two unwitting friends became embroiled in a plot to destroy the world. But Barb and Star isn’t the best goofy high-stakes satire of the past 20 years, and neither is Zoolander. In fact, Zoolander wasn’t even the best brainwashing movie of 2001. I am referring, as I am literally always referring, to Josie and the Pussycats.

Released in April of that year, JatP had a lot working against it. It didn’t have the backdrop of a national tragedy to make a feel-good time at the movies seem important, and it didn’t star comedy actors like Stiller, Ferrell, and Wilson. Instead, it had the stars of teen movies (Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, Rosario Dawson), and even worse, they were girls! And it was so different from its Archie Comics source material, fans just didn’t know what to make of the satirical musical. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, or perhaps more accurately, a skipping CD (I’ve blogged, tweeted, written, and podcasted about Josie), but this movie is so good and smart and is finally, finally a cult classic, finally getting an ounce of the recognition it deserves. (In the equation where Zoolander equals Barb and Star, JatP is Eurovision, another musical I thought was really fun! More Will Ferrell!)

Back to Zoolander. I screened it at a movie night I put together for my freshman class in high school (yeah, I was on student council and planned movie nights, what can I say, I was very cool). The crowd was pleased, or at least mollified. And I can’t deny—nor would I want to—that there’s a lasting cultural impact here. You can trace a direct line from Derek’s merry band of model bozos to the “Insta gay” pack on The Other Two (The Other Two…so hot right now). Like the piano key necktie, this might be a novelty, but it’s a recognizable, fun one at that. What more do we want? FL

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