Based on the last decade of his film career, it's safe to say that Ben Stiller has cultivated a reputation as one of Hollywood's finest young comedic actors - and one of its worst young comedic directors. The opposite, oddly enough, is true in Zoolander, Stiller's new film that aims for big laughs but can't reach above mediocrity.
Stiller has performed wonderfully in romantic comedies such as There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents and Keeping the Faith, but as a director of the mediocre slacker comedy Reality Bites (1993) and the infamous Jim Carrey vehicle The Cable Guy (1996) his record is less impressive.
Zoolander, the first picture he has directed since hitting big as an actor, came with great expectations. While he does a fine job directing, it's Stiller's performance, ironically, that sinks the film.
In what resembles a shotgun marriage between The Manchurian Candidate and Austin Powers, Stiller plays Derek Zoolander, one of the world's top male models, who is brainwashed by an evil fashion mogul (Will Ferrell) into assassinating the Prime Minister of Malaysia, in order to prevent the PM's planned enforcement of child labour laws. Derek also feuds with (and later befriends) another model, Hansel (Owen Wilson), while dealing with a curious magazine reporter (Christine Taylor, Stiller's wife).
While Stiller directed and his wife, best friend Wilson, and father Jerry all appear, it's Stiller, surprisingly, that's the problem. One of Stiller's weaknesses as an actor is that while his usual persona in romantic comedies is as appealing as anybody's, he has had little success when straying from that. Stiller simply isn't playing a funny character here. He's not for a second believable as a male supermodel. In an age when most major movie stars are in fact one-time models, Stiller doesn't look, sound, or act even remotely like one.
The film consists of a series of set-pieces, some of which work and many more than don't. The highlights are a funeral scene and a "walk-off" between Stiller and Wilson (recalling their scenes together in Meet the Parents) while lowlights abound, especially lame parodies of 2001 and The Godfather.
Entertaining cameos by the likes of Donald Trump to David Bowie add some more spice but when spotting celebrity walk-ons is the most entertaining thing about a film that's a problem. The brilliant actor Ferrell, as usual in his movie career, has to wade through incredibly weak material, although Jerry Stiller steals all of his scenes, doing what appears to be an impersonation of pornographer Al Goldstein.
Zoolander was released in the States within days of September 11, and it says something about the film that it received more press for its decision to edit out the Twin Towers than for anything else. Hopefully at some point Ben Stiller will direct and star in a picture that showcases all of his strengths as both a director and actor, but Zoolander is not that movie.