It’s rare for people to say that they haven’t seen Zoolander. It is even rarer for people to say that they hate it. Zoolander is one of the most beloved satires that has become one of the stable movies in the American comedy canon. The over-the-top fashion world of the film has become ironic, as younger generations become self-obsessed with their online image. 

This fashion satire wasn’t always a beloved comedy. When the film debuted in September of 2001, critics tore it apart. The Washington Postdescribed Zoolander as “a one-joke movie,” whileTimeOut wrote that it was “a vanity comedy that fails at every level.” Audiences were also critical about the movie, feeling that the film was out of touch with the times. The film earned $15 million during its opening weekend, which was about half of its production budget. 

Esquire recently did a retrospective on the film. Let's take a look at some of the biggest takeaways.

This box-office failure is hard to imagine now as we all endlessly quote the movie, but it wasn’t the film’s fault.

Hitting theaters two weeks after 9/11, the satire failed to connect with audiences, because the audience wasn’t ready to laugh yet. “It was such a hard time with comedy,” states actress Christine Taylor, who played Matilda, the investigatory journalist and love interest.

While laughter is always the best medicine, you have to be ready to laugh, and people just weren’t there yet. 

Instead of drifting away into oblivion, Zoolander was able to rise from its failed box office performance largely due to the cast and crew. Thanks to a persona that poked at the idea that models are just walking mannequins, Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander was manipulated by evil fashion designer, Mugatu (Will Ferrell), to star in a campaign that is actually a ploy to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia. 

Zoolander_thats_hot_0Will Ferrell as Mugatu and Milla Jovovich as Katinka Ingabogovina in 'Zoolander'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Playing alongside Stiller and Ferrell was a well-rounded cast that included Owen Wilson as the rising hipster model, Hansel, and Milla Jovovich as Mugatu’s dominatrix-like henchperson, Katinka. There are also plenty of cameos that include David Bowie, Billy Zane, James Marsden, Vince Vaughn, Alexander Skarsgård, and many more. 

Wilson was always Stiller’s first choice for the role of Hansel, but when it looked like he wouldn’t be available due to scheduling conflicts, they were forced to hold auditions. Stiller recalls young Jake Gyllenhaal auditioning, “doing this wide-eyed version of Hansel that was really funny.”

Jerry_stiller_in_zoolander_0The late Jerry Stiller as Maury Ballstein, Zoolander's manager, in 'Zoolander'Credit: Paramount Pictures

For those who haven’t seen Zoolander, the movie is defined by absurdity and self-awareness. Derek’s a “really, really, ridiculously, good-looking” model who is famous for poses—“Le Tigre,” “Blue Steel,” and his newest pose “Magnum”—which are all the same pose, as Mugatu points out at the end of the film.

There are outrageous plot points like the walk-off between Derek and Hansel that is judged by David Bowie, the gasoline splash fight-turned-explosion where Derek’s male model friends and roommates die, and the hand model who keeps his hands in glass cases to persevere their perfection.

There is also one of the most famous orgies in film in the movie that includes Matilda, Derek, Hansel, some of Hansel’s groupies, a monk, and a goat. The orgy scene almost made the rating for Zoolander go from a PG-13 rating to an R. Stiller went to the rating board after they offered an R-rating and said, “Would I ever put my wife in anything that would be questionable?”

Zoolander_and_hansel__1Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander and Owen Wilson as Hansel McDonald in 'Zoolander'Credit: Paramount Pictures

It also examined and exposed a culture that was consumed by narcissism and self-persevering obsession to the masses. The film predates the age of social media where accounts like Diet Prada expose the fashion industry for stealing designs from others, child labor, and promoting unhealthy physical and mental conditions. 

Mugatu himself is a mockery of the privilege that makes the design world feel so out of touch. His “Derelicte” campaign, which Derek is selected to be the face of, is inspired by, “the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique."

In reality, Mugatu’s line pays homage to John Galliano’s controversial homeless-chic couture line from his 2000's Dior collection.

Zoolander_magnum_1The debut of "Magnum" in 'Zoolander'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Like most movies made in the early 2000s, there are elements of the movie that have aged poorly. Yes, comedy changes over time, but it is important to point out what mainstream media no longer tolerates.

The overall assumption that male models are dim-witted is an idea that has lingered throughout the fashion industry before the movie’s debut. Another point that has aged poorly is when Matilda refers to Mugatu’s evil henchperson Katinka as a “she-male,” an offensive term. There is also a scene where Derek and Hansel are wearing blackface and brownface as "disguises." Eating disorders are also the punchline for Derek and Hansel after they find out that Matilda suffered from bulimia.

Although some of these points can be seen as a dig at how shallow the fashion community is, there is still harm being done by giving these points a place to live on-screen without correcting or commenting on them in the movie. 

Despite the harsh criticism the movie received on its debut, Zoolander gained a huge following over the years, earning a sequel in 2016 which featured even more celebrity cameos and a deep dive into the digital age.

What are your thoughts on Zoolander and the fashion industry itself? Is there another movie that critiques the industry better? Let us know in the comments! 

Source: Esquire