How 15 Years Took ‘Zoolander’ From Too Soon To Too Late

It’s strange to go back and re-read reviews of Zoolander, a film I consider not only a classic, but close to a perfect comedy, and see how despised it was upon its release in September 2001. Even most of the critics who gave it theoretically positive reviews did so with a tone of begrudging dismissiveness. “It’s funny enough while it unwinds onscreen,” wrote Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel. “What Zoolander does have, and this was enough for me, is a sublime comic performance by Owen Wilson,” said Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Patchy and occasionally irritating. However, it’s also occasionally very funny,” “raved” Nev Pierce for the BBC.

Of the actually negative reviews, Roger Ebert’s is perhaps the most memorable. Ebert’s Zoolander review is one of the bigger whiffs of the rightly revered critic’s career, though not because of the writing. Ebert was actually one of the few detractors with the balls to address directly what it was that kept him from laughing at Zoolander: 9/11. He fumbles trying to explain why, but emotions are like that. Sometimes not laughing at something has more to do with you than with that something. His review reads like the foggy diatribe of someone who just wasn’t ready to laugh yet.

There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world. As this week’s Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander, a comedy about a plot to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because of his opposition to child labor.

The entire plot hinges on Derek Zoolander stopping the assassination, but Ebert seemed especially hung up on Zoolander‘s decision to use a real country as a plot point in a silly comedy.

Malaysia is a mostly Muslim country with a flag that looks a lot like ours: It has the red and white stripes of the American flag, and a blue field in the upper left corner, which instead of stars displays Islamic symbols, the star and crescent. Malaysia is home to the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, the world’s tallest buildings. But you get the point [nope, I sure don’t -Ed]. If the Malaysians made a comedy about the assassination of the president of the United States because of his opposition to slavery, it would seem approximately as funny to us as “Zoolander” would seem to them.

This is one of the strangest equivalencies I’ve ever read. Who knows what Ebert would’ve thought about The Interview, where the leader was actually named, and based on the real guy? Zoolander doesn’t name its fictional Malaysian prime minister, an elderly Asian man in a kimono, who didn’t look much like the actual Malaysian prime minister at the time. The only similarities are the name and the fact that Malaysia has a prime minister. But Ebert was clearly sensitive about America causing offense. He went onto praise Zoolander‘s “center for ants” scene, which leads into a more backhanded compliment:

I also admire the ruthlessness with which “Zoolander” points out that the fashion industry does indeed depend on child labor. The back-to-school clothes of American kids are largely made by Third World kids who don’t go to school. In fact, the more you put yourself into the shoes (if he had any) of a Muslim 12-year-old in a sport-shirt factory, the more you might understand why he resents rich Americans, and might be offended by a movie about the assassination [sic] of his prime minister (if he had the money to go to a movie).

Here he seemed especially sensitive on the Malaysians’ behalf over being depicted as… people who would popularly elect a leader who was against child labor, I guess… while apparently blind to his own depiction of Malaysians as barefoot 12-year-olds working in a shirt factory who were too poor to afford movies.

Anyway, I’m not trying to pick on a normally wonderful film critic who isn’t even around to defend himself. I’m only pointing out that for a lot of people, Zoolander was too soon. I think that’s part of what made it such a cult classic (I’m not even sure its classic status qualifies as “cult” anymore). Not because it came out too close to 9/11, but because it seemed more relevant to things that came after it than things that were actually happening at the time. This was a movie that skewered narcissism — before Instagram, before YouTube, before Snapchat, when even Facebook was just a distant Mark Zuckerberg boner dream. Zoolander feels like a social media movie before social media existed, an extended riff on hipsters before every comedian dedicated at least 10 minutes to “doncha just hate hipsters?” And to think, Ben Stiller was just trying to rip on awards shows and MTV Cribs.

Even if you wanted to go Ebert’s tortured what-does-this-say-about-America route, Derek Zoolander was a dopey, self-centered guy who thought everything was about him, but eventually did the right thing almost despite himself, because he was brave and his heart was in the right place. If that doesn’t describe Uncle Sam, I don’t know what does. And just from a technical standpoint, Zoolander is beautifully realized. Mugatu’s entire hypnosis sequence is some of the best production design I’ve ever seen in a comedy film, and the editing is perfectly timed — the editor clearly understood which jokes were meant to be big and sharp (“I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”) and which were supposed to fizzle and fall flat (“You think you’re too cool for school, but I’ve got a news flash for you, Walter Cronkite. …You aren’t.”). It’s endlessly quotable, though it probably helps if you enjoy the humor of dumb people trying to sound smart and if you’ve seen it a thousand times, like I have. And because of 9/11, it’s easy to remember where you were when you saw it. (For me, it was leaving the eerily empty parking lot of a massive multiplex with my friends, shouting “Obey my dog!” at each other the whole way.)

Zoolander‘s timing ensured it wasn’t going to be a box office smash, but people eventually discovered it on DVD and cable, and it went on to become one of the most frequently-quoted comedies of the aughts. I think almost a whole generation knows the whole thing by heart.

Comedy sequels are usually sad and a little desperate, but at the very least, Zoolander No. 2 was an intriguing possibility. It’s not like Anchorman 2 or Dumb and Dumber To where you could just go “bad idea” and put it out of your mind forever. I legitimately wish Derek Zoolander had been around for the rise of the selfie. So sure, a Zoolander sequel might be an attempt to stretch a joke, like any comedy sequel is by definition. But here there was so much more material to work with. How often does that happen?

In Zoolander No. 2, the gang is still pretty good at parodying the hot and the new. Easily the most successful character is Kyle Mooney’s Don Atari, a street art-inspired fashion designer with a habit of rattling off two contradictory statements, making insults sound like compliments. “Dude, that was the corniest thing ever! I loved it. You guys are so lame, you’re the best.”