When I was younger, I was kind of a brat. Not mean, not cruel, not a bully—just someone who thought she was usually smarter than the other kids around her, and sometimes smarter than her teachers.
I also loved movies, but I took pride in watching good movies. When my sister and I would go to Blockbuster, she would suggest a title and I’d say, “we can’t see that—it got a C- from Entertainment Weekly and one and a half stars from Ebert and Film Comment didn’t even write about it. How about this Oscar-nominated foreign film that never got a theatrical release in Sacramento?”
And then one day she said, “Shut up, Anne. We’re watching Zoolander.”
Roger Ebert gave it one star and found it offensive. I loved it. Its silly stupidity, faux-seriousness and caricatured characters make for a perfect blend of laughing-at and laughing-with. Even now, reading through memorable quotes on IMDB cracks me up. (“If there is anything that this horrible tragedy can teach us, it’s that a male model’s life is a precious, precious commodity. Just because we have chiseled abs and stunning features, it doesn’t mean that we too can’t not die in a freak gasoline fight accident,” Zoolander eulogizes—or, “eugoogoolizes”—after the death of his friends.) Luckily, last month, nearly nine years after the untimely just-after-9/11-release-date of the original, it was announced that a Zoolander sequel is in the works.
For me, Zoolander was the PG-13 gateway drug that opened the floodgates to Meet the Fockers and Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers and Along Came Polly and Talladega Nights and The 40 Year Old Virgin and Bad Santa and Superbad and Borat and Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Tropic Thunder and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all the other lowbrow raunchfests that were part of the mid 2000s renaissance of the R-rated comedy. (But I hate Old School, and Will Ferrell’s overgrown, often nude, man-child shtick in general. A former roommate and I had frequent Stiller vs. Ferrell face-offs, with her fighting in the corner of Elf and Anchorman and even Stepbrothers. Plans for Anchorman 2 seem sketchy—there are reports that it is “on hold”—so take that, Brittney!)
Stiller’s role in the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, which opens in wide release on Friday, has prompted looks back at his 30-year career. A recent New York Times piece, called Mortification Man, distilled Stiller’s career down to being a “perennial punching bag”:
“He anchors family movies and romantic comedies alike, and it says something about his charisma— and perhaps about the dark appetites of the moviegoing public — that he has done so with a screen presence that is often synonymous with anxiety, pain and humiliation.”
True enough, given that his big break, There’s Something About Mary, found him snared through the cheek with a fish hook (not to mention the famous hair gel scene). However, my favorite Stiller characters are the muscley preeners, those where he twists his neurotic persona into inflated, egotistical goons like gym owner White Goodman in Dodgeball (who literally inflates the groin area of his tight shorts), action star actor Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder and, of course, Derek “Blue Steel” Zoolander.
These characters also have their hang-ups—the gym owner is terrified of becoming fat again, the actor wants critical acclaim that eludes him when he goes “full retard,” the male model is afraid that his life has been meaningless—but they’re too self-unaware to be neurotic, too oblivious to be humiliated, too aggressive to be punching bags. It’s worth noting that Stiller co-wrote and directed both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. When he takes charge, his lead roles serve as bulked-up and really, really, ridiculously good looking antidotes to his “mortification men.” They’re dumb as shit, though, so no one can accuse Stiller of taking himself too seriously.
I still watch Oscar-nominated foreign films, and I’m still guilty of occasional snobbery. But according to IMDB, Stiller has 17 movies in the works, so maybe he’ll knock it out of me yet, with the power of Zoolander’s unleashed Magnum.