There are devious plans afoot in the fashion industry since the election of a new Malaysian Prime Minister, a man seen as a great reformer who will among other things stop the use of child labour in the garment manufacturing industry. This will cost the designers a whole lot more money, and so they hatch a plan of assassination as they have done many times before, but who can they possibly get to carry out their scheme? Who would be stupid enough to be brainwashed as a hitman without actually realising? How about a certain male supermodel, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), who has recently gone up to accept the award for year's best model?
Never mind that he didn't actually win it for a record-breaking fourth year, and it was in fact given to his arch-rival, the up-and-coming pretender to his throne Hansel (Owen Wilson), this simply proves to the baddies that they have the right man in mind. There was a sense that Ben Stiller and his co-screenwriters Drake Sather and John Samburg were shooting fish in a barrel by taking aim at the world of male models, yet they staved off what could in other hands have been obvious and meanspirited by getting in touch with their keen awareness of the ridiculous. You could argue that it's not much of a stretch to render these targets ludicrous, of course.
And also that it was pretty rich for Hollywood to be sending anyone in showbiz up, especially as the celebrity obsessed twenty-first century dawned that they did so much to bolster and create. But Stiller and his team are well in on the joke, and know that they have quite some cheek in doing this, a lot of which is conveyed in the performances which are a deft mixture of the clueless and the knowing. Plus, the star-filled cast can look as if they are more savvy than they might otherwise appear, winking at us that they have a sense of humour about themselves that casts them in a flattering light. The more cynical viewer might begrudge them that, but Zoolander is so much fun that you can forgive them any amount of false modesty.
Besides, there's not really a false note struck in this as it's all about reaching the next gag with as much economy and invention as possible. Stiller had shown that he was skilled at spoofy humour in his self-starring sketch show of the nineties, but that was very much of its moment and here it's as if they acknowledge that this is how celebrity culture will be from now on, vapid, self-regarding and as glitzy as possible. Oddly, the other half of the equation, those of us who lap up and encourage the gossip, are not depicted: the closest we get to seeing ordinary folks is when Derek goes back to the mining community he hails from and is barely tolerated by his hardworking family who are embarrassed by his antics.
Not us, though, we cannot get enough of his stupidity and Stiller displays an admirable faith in the comedic power of the outright moron. If there's anything surprising about the villains choosing him for their plan, it's that they thought he'd be any good at it at all, but in a cross between The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View, it looks like it's curtains for the Malaysian politician at the catwalk show being staged by the evil Mugatu (Will Ferrell, nicely controlled in light of how baggy his improvisational style became later). But Derek is not alone, and a crusading journalist, Matilda (Christine Taylor), deduces that there is a conspiracy going on (with help from David Duchovny sending up his X Files role) and prompts him to make peace with Hansel. What's pleasing about this is that while most of the good guys are supremely dim, it doesn't prevent them from turning true heroes, and do justice to a film that has become a minor benchmark. Blue Steel, turning left, the walk off, all quality stuff. Music by David Arnold.