CCM singer Randy Stonehill summed it up best in his 1992 song "Great Big Stupid World." "Well we worship at the shroud of Elvis/And we're waiting for that money from Ed McMahon/We're drinking from the Perrier fountain of youth/While we follow what the daily horoscopes saying/Taking lethal doses of MTV ... Getting anorexic on our Lean Cuisines/Turning plastic surgeons into millionaires/So everybody finally gets to look like Cher/It's a great big stupid world/And we're feeling kind of queasy as it turns around."
It’s safe to assume Ben Stiller had no spiritual motivation for creating Zoolander, but Ben and Randy have their fingers on the same pulse. From A to Zoo, Zoolander picks apart our cultural fixation with fashion, thinness, celebrity, money, lust, sex and power. A high bar for a spoof comedy, but Stiller seems up for the task.
Based on a character Stiller co-created in 1996 for the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, Derek Zoolander is male supermodel extraordinaire. Dumber than dirt, but with a face created for the camera, Derek has been the VH1 Fashion Awards male model of the year for three years running. Unbeknownst to him, though, evil lurks beneath the surface of his glitzy runway world. Would you believe it, the fashion industry has been directly responsible for every political assassination in the past 200 years?! Earth to Derek! You’re the next killer. Hot on the industry’s heavily-moussed trail is Time magazine reporter Matilda, determined to break the conspiracy before the next target (the Prime Minister of Malaysia) gets powdered to death.
positive elements: "I’m sure there must be something more to life than being really, really good looking," muses Derek. "I’ve got to find out what that is." Everything positive in Zoolander is layered into the spoof. Some of the film’s most problematic moments (an orgy scene, for instance) provide its strongest statements. Naturally, Derek falls for the fetching Time journalist (played by Stiller’s real-life wife, Christine Taylor), but it’s not until he sees her "happily" sandwiched between "two Finnish dwarfs" at an orgy that he confesses to a friend that he knows he wants to spend the rest of my life with her. Derek’s not bothered by the sexual transgression, he’s just consumed with his newfound love. The absurdity of such a realization at such a time all but screams condemnation on the debauchery that prompts it. Granted, it’s a long way around to get there, but this is just that kind of story.
A few more obvious plusses are the film’s savage jabs at eating disorders, fashion obsessions, sweatshops and child labor, and many celebrities’ philanthropic apathy. Here, too, Zoolander uses jokes and gags—some of them crude—to make its points. When Matilda confesses that she developed bulimia as a child trying to keep up with actresses and models, Derek looks startled and blurts, "You can read minds?" When Matilda explains what bulimia is, Derek is nonplussed, declaring that he throws up after a lot of meals. "It’s a good way to keep the pounds off," he and arch-rival model Hansel agree. No one, however, could justifiably accuse Stiller and company of defending or even making light of eating disorders. The message here is clearly one of condemnation for the fashion industry’s tolerance—even encouragement—of such illnesses.
spiritual content: Hansel seems to have been influenced by Eastern Mysticism (but he was so high at the time, he’s not too sure about that). He makes a reference to "the great spirit."
sexual content: Pick up any issue of Vogue and you’ll see the kind of skin-baring costumes exhibited here. Okay, don’t pick up Vogue, just take my word for it. The hemlines leap to within inches of waistlines. And necklines aren’t far away. One of Derek’s fashion poses bears an S&M theme, with a man sitting on his back. And Derek’s agent, Maury, pinches an employee’s rear (his female victim seems ambivalent). Maury is also quite fond of making rude, sexually harassing remarks to any woman within earshot. One intensely embarrassing scene has Derek under a sheet getting a body massage. A rather obvious bulge below his stomach moves and twitches as the masseuse tries to dodge it. Worse yet, an orgy scene was reportedly edited at least five different times to convince the MPAA to give the film a PG-13 rating instead of an R. The goat is gone, and what’s left is shot from the shoulders up, but the implications are still clear.
"I’m too sexy for my ... underwear?" Derek and Hansel both reach down inside their pants trying to remove their underwear without taking off their pants (Hansel succeeds, Derek doesn’t). Full nudity appears briefly in the form of stone statues.
violent content: Three of Derek’s friends get into a water fight at a filling station. Next thing you know, they’re spraying gasoline on each other from the nozzles. Someone lights a cigarette. Ka-boom! So was it an irresponsible stunt destined to be copied, merely silly fun, or a poignant statement on how dangerous stupid games can be? Good question. Beyond that explosive moment, fist fights break on the runways, a gun fight is staged in a cemetery, a throwing star wings its way towards the Prime Minister’s head and Derek dreams about ripping a man’s head off.
crude or profane language: Nearly 10 s-words; almost 10 misuses of the Lord’s name; about 20 other profanities and anatomical crudities.
drug and alcohol content: Hansel comments more than once that he has indulged in hallucinogens. Acid and peyote are specifically mentioned. Right before the orgy, everyone drinks a drugged tea. And alcohol is consumed.
other negative elements: Maury refers to children who can’t read as "retards." He also jokes about selling earrings made out of tinfoil and excrement. Complaining about his enlarged prostate, Maury stands in front of a urinal trying to urinate.
conclusion: Goofy is the operative word here. "A delightfully stupid farce that mocks highbrow style with lowbrow laughs," writes Reel.com’s Mary Kalin-Casey. The problem with Zoolander is that it spends nearly 2 hours banging the same gong. It should have lasted 45 minutes. It’s a good joke, and it’s laden with life lessons, but it’s impossible to keep laughing at the same joke for that long. What amazes me is that Stiller took the time to aim so many spears at cultural idols, all of which deserve skewering. Kudos for that. Still, profane language, an orgy, and all sorts of sexual imagery and innuendo will dissuade a host of parents from saying yes to a family trip to the Zoolander.