In these days of post-attack malaise, a good laugh is hard to find. Be it subtle, broad or even way over the top, whatever humor is out there, we could use. The loopy comedy "Zoolander," in which Ben Stiller directs himself as the most vapid of internationally known male supermodels, does the job on a very hit-and-miss basis. Give it an "A" for effort and about a "C" for execution.
This exercise in exuberant silliness was inspired by a character Stiller created for the (also silly) 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. For some reason, he decided to turn that sketch-fodder character into the protagonist of a feature film. The movie, which appears to be set in the mid-'90s, feels dated and remarkably pass?, particularly in light of everything we've witnessed on 24-hour cable news these last two weeks. It's oh so five minutes ago, and only occasionally witty enough to elicit a laugh-out-loud response.
Stiller, however, is nicely cast as the title character, a runway king who boasts (as the ads proclaim) 3 percent body fat and 1 percent brain activity. Derek Zoolander, cover boy supreme, owes his success to a series of vacuous and indistinguishable "looks," for which he scrunches his face into an expression that suggests a sudden attack of painful constipation. He's sweet but stupid, so spacey that he rushes up to accept an award for male model of the year moments after his young rival, Hansel (Owen Wilson), has been named the actual winner. A week later, Zoolander's picture is on the cover of *Time* magazine, next to a headline that reads "A Model Idiot?"
Stiller expertly puts on his hurt-puppy face as Zoolander turns tail and goes home to "coal-mining country" in southern New Jersey, with a vague notion of staging a reunion with his father (Jon Voight) and brother (Vince Vaughn).
"I'm sorry that I was born with perfect bone structure," the model tells his pop. No warm welcome is to be had.
Zoolander, as it turns out, is the perfect candidate for a plot by fufu design guru Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell, sporting oversized, tinted glasses and sprigs of hair on his scalp) to murder the prime minister of Malaysia, in an effort to maintain a pool of cheap labor. Both this story line and a subplot that involves the rivalry between Zoolander and Hansel are really little more than excuses for an endless stream of gags, some riotous, some dead on arrival.
The main cast is rounded out by Christine Taylor, Milla Jovovich and Ben Stiller (Jerry's dad), who plays an ostentatious personal manager. David Duchovny appears as a former hand model with information detailing the fashion industry's responsibility for 200 years of political assassinations in America. And the cameos never end: David Bowie, Fabio, Winona Ryder, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Andy Dick, Anne Meara, Natalie Portman and Sandra Bernhard all turn up in one place or another. Have fun trying to keep score.