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(Credit: Zoolander)

20 years of 'Zoolander' Ben Stiller's comedy gamechanger

Looking back at the classic 2001 comedy Zoolander, you can’t help but think its inherent stupidity and cultural pertinence is more suitable to the environment of contemporary cinema, aside, perhaps, from the cameo appearance of Donald Trump. Arriving onto the scene at a time where the essence of the blockbuster comedy had yet to be established, Zoolander helped to bring a new sense of silliness that has since come to define much of modern comedy, from the likes of Step Brothers to Brooklyn 99.

Released at the mere infancy of the new millennium, Zoolander hit cinemas just weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a time when Americans weren’t particularly craving frivolous puerile comedy. Commercially and critically failing quite spectacularly upon its release, Zoolander was attacked for its ill-timed representation of American values. 

It was certainly unfortunate timing in regards to world politics, but for the cultural zeitgeist, Zoolander couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. Following the lives of eccentric fashion icons, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) and their bizarre embroilment with the assassination of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the film, directed by Stiller himself, would be the perfect conduit between nineties and noughties comedy. 

Greatly inspired by Mike Myers’ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and its sequel The Spy who Shagged Me, Ben Stiller explained the films’ influence: “he [Myers] was taking these very broad characters and making movies that were incredibly funny and somehow worked in the long-form” in an interview with Esquire.

Attracting a similarly young audience eager for mindless, silly humour, Zoolander amplified the style of Mike Myers classic films with an equally surreal storyline that featured a mix of colourful characters. From Will Ferrell’s Mugatu to Milla Jovovich’s Katinka, as well as a whole host of celebrity cameos including the appearances of David Bowie, Tom Ford and Natalie Portman, Zoolander created a vibrant tapestry of comedy that didn’t shy away from sharp criticisms against the fashion industry. 

With iconic moments such as Derek Zoolander’s ‘Blue Steel’ as well as influential viral scenes like the walk-off showdown featuring David Bowie as a judge, Ben Stiller’s film quickly earned cult success in the early noughties. Speaking about its rise to cult status, Stiller reported to Esquire, “They saw it on DVD or cable or satellite, so it became [like] this rare piece of vinyl almost, that people discovered and really enjoyed sort of at home…that’s part of the reason I think it’s such a beloved movie, because everyone has a personal connection to it”.

The sequel to the iconic film was released in 2016, though failed to capture the spirit of the original, arguably not embracing the silly nature that made the first film so great. It seemed as if Zoolander 2 was a pastiche rather than an entertaining successor, with the spirit of the original film instead continued by the films of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, in Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. The monumental success of such comedy favourites created a fondness for such silliness that permeated into television in Brooklyn 99 and to some extent, Rick and Morty. 

With Ben Stiller having moved into more dramatic roles, and Mike Myers having falling out of industry favour, it can be difficult to remember that both Austin Powers and Derek Zoolander sculpt the modern comedic tastes we enjoy today.

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