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Film review: Zoolander

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When it comes to comedy, there are "stupid" movies and there are "stoopid" movies. The difference is, while the former are unknowingly dumb — or at least unaware that they're intelligence-deprived — the latter put a lot of effort into looking as dim as possible.

It's not often that with "stoopid" movies this somewhat risky comic strategy pays off — but when it does, as with "Zoolander," it's a thing of beauty. Really.

At times, this silly comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, and there's a lot more wit than you'd ever have believed from watching the trailers and TV spots. (In particular, there are specific references to and jokes about both "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the "Godfather" movies, as well as the original "Star Trek" TV series, for which you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of cinema or television to appreciate them.)

As far as the story is concerned, it revolves around the title character, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller, reprising a part he created as a one-shot for the 1996 "VH-1/Vogue Fashion Awards Show").

Though he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Derek is on top of the world, having become the world's most coveted male model. But that's about to end.

First, he loses the coveted Male Model of the Year Award to his archnemesis, extreme-sports fanatic and all-around-oddball Hansel (Owen Wilson). Then, he loses his best friends in a freak accident. And when the dispirited and disillusioned model limps home — to New Jersey's coal-mining country (don't ask) — he's rebuffed by his disapproving father (Jon Voight).

But just when he thinks he's reached rock bottom, Derek bounces back, winning the position of spokesmodel for the new clothing line by eccentric designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell). As it turns out, though, Mugatu is secretly brainwashing him to become an assassin.

Though the plot (which was co-written by Stiller and a pair of other screenwriters) may sound a bit confusing, it's actually streamlined and fairly straightforward. Even better is the fact that its mocking is never quite as mean-spirited as you'd expect in this sort of material.

Admittedly, not all of the jokes work (especially some of the cruder stuff), but director Stiller (him again) paces the film so briskly that every time there's a dud joke, you can be guaranteed there's a hysterically funny one soon to follow.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, Stiller's Zoolander doesn't emerge as the film's funniest character. For one thing, Wilson puts in a serious bid to steal the picture, and there is a series of amusing bit parts and cameos by the likes of David Duchovny, Billy Zane, Voight and Vince Vaughn.

"Zoolander" is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor (both verbal and sight gags), as well as some scatological humor and references, violence (martial arts, done for laughs), scattered profanity, brief sex (done for laughs) and glimpses of nude artwork. Running time: 90 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com