Movie Review: Zoolander (2001)

This movie has lived so long in my soul that I don’t need to watch it anymore, really. Zoolander may well be the origin of memes as far as I’m concerned. Infinitely quotable, both absurd and stacked with cameos, Zoolander arrived in my young life at a time where it basically branded itself on my gray matter.

The version in my head, edited by the memories of a young teen, is kinda better than the actual movie. The jokes are so absurdly funny when you anticipate them and quote with them. “What is this, a school for ants? It needs to be at least…three times bigger than this.” “I’m not an ambi-turner.” “Orange mocha Frappuccino!” “I’ve got the black lung, pop. Cough. Cough.”

I didn’t pick up on the bits that I wasn’t old enough to understand. The various sex stuff, whatever. But I completely forgot this movie has blackface in it. It’s the kind of “plausible deniability” blackface that white folks like to do. Zoolander makes himself up as a Black man for a disguise — which is initially really funny here because they cast a man who looks very different from Ben Stiller but does the facial expressions perfectly — and then wipes off some of the makeup to turn back into Ben Stiller.

But only some of the makeup is removed and much of his skin remains painted dark-brown while he begins acting like one of the primates from the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The brown skin coloring is left in a way to make him look more like a monkey. When I was young, it never registered. These seemed to be two distinct unrelated jokes.

There was also plausible deniability for Ben Stiller’s use of blackface in his movie Tropic Thunder. One thinks maybe Ben Stiller just thinks blackface is funny.

I’m now old enough to hear the racist dog whistles, and uh, bark bark bark.

It kinda ruins the whole thing for me? I have this petty thing where I think white people trying to wink-nudge about blackface means they’re actually garbage humans telling on themselves. Tina Fey, looking at you. They’ll talk about how “humor has changed” and you “can’t do that anymore” like it was *ever* okay. It is not. It was not. What changes is how safe and common it is to call out the racism.

This point occurs near the end of the movie, shortly before the climactic fashion show. There is other humor that is edgy and inappropriate but still so funny—like the bulimia joke *kills* even more now that I have recovered from an eating disorder. “You can read minds?”—but blackface is a world apart in violence. This kind of thing makes me so cynical.

Also, trigger warning for Donald Trump jumpscares.

I want to comment on everything else I love about it. David Duchovny as a hand model. The entire performance by Milla Jovovich. Billy Zane shows up to have Zoolander’s back. A young Lightning McQueen is pretty adorable as Hansel—kachow! wowww! The central romantic couple is played by an IRL married couple and I’m SUCH a sucker for it. Plus, addressing the exploited labor in the fashion industry is (unfortunately) timeless in its relevancy. I completely understand how Zoolander transformed my brain. But…I don’t think I really want it in my rewatch rotation and it’s lost its stance as a benign comedy in my head.

Ben Stiller has always had a good ear for such goofy stylized comedy. He’s also really good at leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I guess that’s the stuff you can get away with when you have so many extremely famous friends like Billy Zane.

As with George of the Jungle, where I am left feeling bereft by a childhood influence that is not aging well, I elect not to rate this movie in my review.

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