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Hooked to the Silver Screen I 8 I Zoolander (2001)

As was the case with Yellowbeard, a bad comedy, Bowie makes a cameo in Zoolander, a good comedy, in which his mere appearance is supposed to be funny. And it is. Zoolander is a very funny, ridiculous movie about two idiotic male models who end up on a mission to prevent the assassination of the Malaysian prime minister. I’m not going to summarize it or recount all the funny scenes— it’s funny, it works. If you’re going for a silly comedy, you’re going to get what you set out for with Zoolander.

That said, I think the movie has a kind of dark side. Laughing at idiots has been a staple of movies since the Keystone Kops and Three Stooges. But, hmmm, something seems to have changed after the dawn of the 21st Century. Think about popular comedies of the 70s and 80s— while there are exceptions, the lead comedic actors were often smart, which was often the asset around which their comedy resolved. Think about Bill Murray (except for Caddyshack), Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy or, for that matter, Woody Allen. They usually played characters who were outwitting authority figures or criminals, or in the case of Woody Allen, was an outright intellectual. There were occasional exceptions to this model, such as Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, but by and large what we thought was funny was a wiseacre or a character capable of wordplay or making obscure literary or historical references. Monty Python mastered the mix of intellectual and lowbrow humor, often making audiences laugh by simply demonstrating their Ph.D level knowledge.

All that seemed to vanish by the early 2000s. Lead comedic characters went from being Bugs Bunny to Homer Simpson. Zoolander was not necessarily the first, but it kind of set a template for movies, often starring Will Ferrel, in which the lead character was paradoxically heroic and moronic. Think about Anchor Man, Blades of Glory, The Other Guys, Stepbrothers, Borat, Holmes and Watson, Tropic Thunder and many others. In all cases (I can’t think of an exception), the dumb, heroic main characters are male. What happened?

Of course, like The Jerk, there were plenty of comedies with stupid protagonists. Dumb and Dumber was released in 1994. I don’t think the aforementioned Keystone Kopy and Three Stooges are quite the same because, while the audience is laughing at the main characters for their ineptitude, I don’t think those characters are supposed to be heroic or even very relatable. Similarly, Inspector Clouseau is made somewhat alien by his exaggerated accent (and aside from that, his idiocy was more subtle in first two Pink Panther movies). Being There is more making fun of how society makes assumptions about the simpleton, Chauncey Gardiner and elevates him to high status. We’re not so much laughing at Chauncey as a buffoon.

On the other hand, Zoolander, and his friendly rival, Hansel, are depicted as sex symbols who get the girl, make the magazine covers, found a school, beat the bad guys and are admired by everyone except Ferrell’s uncredited antagonist who laments, “Am I taking crazy pills?”

If it was more common for authority figures to be depicted as small-minded, with the sympathetic lead running circles around them for laughs in the 70s and 80s, the dumb lead in the 21st Century often is an authority figure. Stupidity is rewarded.

All this probably says something about the anti-intellectual trend in American culture, which has infused everything from politics to attitudes about medicine and education. Not a good sign.

That doesn’t mean Zoolander and its ilk aren’t funny— but what’s funny at a point in time usually reflects a larger societal trend. And I’m more than a little concerned about the nature of that trend.

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So back to Bowie— was his cameo a good use? Well, it’s worth noting that unlike in Yellowbeard, the audience had to be reminded who he was. Bowie’s appearance is accompanied by a brief audio clip of “Let’s Dance.” Oh, yeah, its that guy. He’s on screen for seconds, and Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) do most of the comedy during Bowie’s scene. But, sure, it’s a good use. As with Yellowbeard, Bowie is too ancillary to the movie for us to invest too much into his character. I vaguely remember being surprised to see him the first time I watched the movie because his involvement wasn’t advertised. That made sense since his involvement was minimal.

Rating: Once again, I’m on the fence between giving this movie three or four Bowies. While not profound, it really is quite funny. Still, I’m going to hold back from giving it the highest rating because other movies like Anchorman do the same thing even better. So, this one gets three out of four Bowies.

🧑‍🎤👩🏿‍🎤👨‍🎤

Tally

👩🏻‍🎤🧑‍🎤👨‍🎤👩🏿‍🎤 Four Bowie movies reviewed thus far
Labyrinth (1986)

👩🏻‍🎤🧑‍🎤👨‍🎤 Three Bowie movies
The Prestige (2006)
Basquait (1996)
The Snowman (1982)
Zoolander (2001)

👩🏻‍🎤🧑‍🎤 Two Bowie movies
Into the Night (1985)

👩🏻‍🎤 One Bowie movies
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Yellowbeard (1983)

Hooked to the Silver Screen is my series of commentaries about movies in which Bowie appeared. The name of the series comes from a line in the song, “Life on Mars.”

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