Australia's The Bank (2001) may have been the first commercial feature in the world to register the influence of Naomi Klein's book No Logo, but now Zoolander, in its own zany way, takes pop culture's anti-capitalist campaign to new heights.
Star, director and co-writer Ben Stiller takes from Klein's book the thought of sweatshops across Asia providing the cheap labour for the high-bourgeois fashion industry. From this he spins an inspired fantasy.
When political change threatens the status quo in Malaysia, the heads of the fashion world decide that the meddling Prime Minister has to be assassinated.
Furthermore – as a conspiracy nut and former 'hand model' (played by David Duchovny) informs us – all the central political assassinations in twentieth century history have been secretly carried out in the name of the corrupt fashion business.
The assassins need to be highly impressionable idiots, and this is where Zoolander (Stiller) enters the picture. A male model who is facing the decline of his stardom when measured against the hot new thing, Hansel (Owen Wilson), Zoolander is unaware that he is a human time bomb, ready to (literally) explode on the catwalk when a particular dance hit of the '80s hits the turntable.
The caustic sense of humour in this often hilarious film is indicated by the fact that absolutely no character – except an intrepid investigator (Christine Taylor) from Time magazine – can actually remember the name of Malaysia, even when its future is at stake.
Although Stiller's fashion jokes are as up-to-the-moment as they can be, most of the best gags here have a retro reference, somewhat in the style of The Simpsons. Film parodies include Kubrick's 2001 (1968) and the conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974). The climax pivots on a turntable duel between Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and Herbie Hancock's "Rockit". Breakdancing makes several appearances. David Bowie gets the biggest cameo.
Stiller is a talented director (Reality Bites , The Cable Guy ), and he works hard to maintain the comic energy here. The film is full of lovingly mocked-up inserts – ads, documentary inserts, magazine covers, fashion shoots – and some terrific running gags, such as the inability of these models to switch on an iMac computer. A trippy orgy scene serves to demolish the film's obligation to include a little romance and a personal journey or two.
Not every joke works, of course. There are a seemingly infinite number of attempts to raise a laugh from Zoolander's trademark pout, known as Blue Steel. Fortunately, Stiller allows generous opportunities for other performers (such as his Dad Jerry Stiller in an outrageously stereotypical role) to shine.
Zoolander makes no attempt to charm its audience, but in its frenetic, strident way it is a rare treat. And time, in the form of multiple viewings, has only added to its cult allure.
© Adrian Martin November 2001