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Ben Stiller brings his Tom Cruise impression to the big screen.

© 2001, Paramount
All Rights Reserved

Based on a sketch by Ben Stiller and Drake Sather for the VH1 Fashion Awards, "Zoolander" (IMDb listing) is Stiller's answer to Mike Myers and his "Austin Powers" franchise. A towering construction of all that is ridiculous and blissfully unaware about the fashion industry, "Zoolander" might very well be the only film made about modeling that doesn't end in heroin addiction or a bullet to the head. Instead, Stiller has manufactured a hilarious film that if underappreciated now, will live forever on home video and late night cable to those a little more open to accept its weirdness.

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is the nation's top male model. After losing the award for Male Model Of The Year to his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), Zoolander retreats into self-doubt as he ponders his place in the world. When the evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) needs a model to brainwash so he can carry out his plan to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia, he lures Zoolander into his nefarious plans. With the help of a "Time" magazine writer (Christine Taylor) and Billy Zane (playing himself), Zoolander must confront his coal-mining roots, contemplate his future, and try to stop the assassination from taking place.

The comparison to "Austin Powers" might make many of you cringe, but it's not that simple. Taking the comic tone of the International Man Of Mystery, but not the targets, "Zoolander" retains the absurd spirit of the Myers classics without overtly ripping them off. A work solely of Stiller's infinite imagination, "Zoolander" is frenzied entertainment, that while occasionally uneven, nevertheless proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the complexity of Ben Stiller when it comes to his own comedic creations.

"Meet The Parents"? "There's Something About Mary"? Mere child's play. "Zoolander" is Stiller's "Godfather."

It is during Zoolander's brainwashing by Mugatu that the film reaches its only obnoxious comedic pitch. Stiller can be counted on for comic insanity, but these scenes, along with a bizarre, unexplained "2001" homage, left me wincing more than laughing. This film has a lot of indulgent moments, yet they aren't delivered in an abstract way, so the audience isn't let in on the joke. But when those moments fail to give birth to laughs, they sink like a stone and apply brakes to a pretty much breathless comedy.

You can see on Stiller's face the glee he is experiencing helming this comedy. After being told what to do by other directors in his box office smashes, Stiller returns to directing after a 5 -ear absence from his last picture, the forsaken (and misunderstood) "The Cable Guy." Always reliable for laughs, Stiller is at the top of his game when he can control the outcome. "Zoolander" is a work of pure Stiller, from the loving portrayal of the pompous modeling world, to the use of his friends and family in supporting roles (Dad Jerry Stiller nearly steals the film away from his son as Zoolander's agent, Maury Ballstein). This movie is very reminiscent of the sketch comedy Stiller masterminded on his old Fox show, "The Ben Stiller Show." With its sly sense of humor and love for the absurd, "Zoolander" succeeds in both laughs and satire.

Along with Stiller's friends are a host of celebrity cameos that would make the producers of "Hollywood Squares" envious. Ranging from David Duchovny as a conspiracy-theorist former hand model to Jon Voight as Zoolander's coal mining Dad, the cameos add a nice element of surprise to an already unexpected picture. The best appearances should be kept under wraps (hint: the Thin White Duke brings the house down), but keep your eyes open because you might miss a couple if you blink.

Stiller also infuses the picture with almost seamless technical achievements as well. Production designer Robin Standefer does a masterful job creating colorful and gigantic sets for Zoolander's world. From the blindingly white Mugatu office space, to the dingy abandoned Member's Only factory where Zoolander and Hansel stage a "Walk Off." The production is gorgeous and the sure-to-be-talked-about costumes by David C. Robinson are predictably wild. Additionally, the picture is photographed with pristine clarity by Barry Peterson and scored with energy by BT ("Driven"). The low-budgeted "Zoolander" is actually far more accomplished than the $100 million blockbusters that flood the market every year.

Without a care in the world for authenticity or dramatic conventions, Ben Stiller has made a film that is genuinely resourceful and boisterously entertaining. "Zoolander" might not be to everyone's taste, but for the audience looking for a film that's only agenda is to make you laugh, I doubt you will find a better candidate for the rest of the year.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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