This is perhaps an unpopular view, possibly even in a minority of one, but Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter was misunderstood. It was portrayed as a dud, a flop, a misfire... And why? Because it lacked bite. But Altman wasn't trying to sink his teeth into the fashion industry - - he rather liked it, which no one has ever really come to terms with. And although it's much broader in its approach and humour, Ben Stiller's Zoolander comes from a similar place, taking affectionate pot-shots at a business that can never truly be satirised because it's so insane to start with.
It's hard to know where to start with this fabulously stupid movie without spoiling things and simply reducing it to a list of one-liners, sketches and cameos. It's as if someone has sat in a laboratory watching everything from Mystery Men to Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and extracted the purest essence of Guilty Pleasure, packing dimwit hilarity into almost every second of its deceptively short running time.
But unusually for a film of its type, Zoolander works on almost every level. Aside from the jokes, the sight gags and the central conceit (male models have been used as hitmen by a sinister fashionista cabal for the past 200 years), this wacked-out farce succeeds because it doesn't try too hard. The framework could be any American underdog movie of the last 30 years - - think Rocky, Karate Kid, Flashdance - - and the amazing thing is, it could so easily be the real thing. Stiller plays it so wonderfully straight that only his strange, EurAtlantic accent really gives the game away, delivering wonderful deadpan lines like: ""You think you're too cool for school. Well, here's a newsflash, Walter Kronkite... (extremely long pause) ...you're aren't"."
Even better, this is not a one-man show. Zoolander's nemesis, the hot rising star Hansel, is played with equal panache by Owen Wilson, a floppy-haired hippie who lives in a multicultural basement lair that's as crowded and ethnic as Zoolander's spartan pop-art loft is not. And the love interest - - Stiller's real-life wife Christine Taylor - - is given plenty of work to do too, as the investigative Time journalist who's staking out Mugatu's evil empire.
The result is one of the funniest and most likeable comedies of recent times, a movie that lodges itself in the memory and will surely live a long and dignified life on DVD and video. Begging to be watched again and again, the lines here will become remembered for many a year, and Derek Zoolander's classic looks - - the Ferrari, Blue Steel and Le Tigre - - will surely make this the Spinal Tap of fashion.