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Donald Trump has this to say about Derek Zoolander, three-time male model of the year: without him "male modeling wouldn't be what it is today."

So it's like this with Derek: he knew he wanted to be a model back in second grade. Was it his fault, after all, that he had perfect cheekbones? And while we're at it, so what if he wears pajamas with little penguins on them? And hangs out with other male models having dark orange mocha frappucinos while the soundtrack plays Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." (For those of blissfully short memory, that's what George Michael was doing before he went solo and wound up on Top 40 charts as well as the police blotter.)

Is it Derek's fault if he thinks the world "eulogy" is pronounced "You-googly?" Or that he thinks the word "day" is spelled "Dayie?" I mean, his heart's in the right place. Really it is.

When he loses Male Model of the Year to a broken-nosed up-and-comer named Hansel, he wants nothing more than to build the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can't Read Good.

Ahhh, but there's a problem. The wicked fashion consortium behind most of the world's major assassinations (John Wilkes Booth, remember, was an "actor slash model") has brainwashed Derek to assassinate the new prime minister of Malaysia. It seems that the PM wants to eliminate his country's child labor and pay workers living wages, and the consortium can't have that. What if every Third World country eliminated child labor and slave wages?

OK, Ben Stiller's "Zoolander" isn't much more than a swollen skit. Literally. The character of Derek Zoolander began as a Stiller skit at 1996's VH-1 fashion awards. So there is, granted, a lot of filler stuffed into the movie. There is also just enough to laugh at, too, all of it richly funny if not quite on the fall-in-the-aisle level.

It is, for a couple of reasons, not a trivial movie. The first and most important reason is that the box office receipts from this weekend's major commercial movie openings may be the most important since such things were counted. There are three commercial movies opening in multiplexes: "Zoolander," a slight but funny comedy about the world where fashion modeling, pop music and media fawning meet; "Don't Say a Word," a nifty thriller starring Michael Douglas in the kind of role he seems to do better than anyone else these days, and "Hearts in Atlantis," starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in an adaptation of one of those sentimental magic fantasies Stephen King seems to invent when he clears the bats and bloodier phantoms out of his belfry.

I've seen two of the three and they're solidly entertaining. So is "Hearts in Atlantis" by reputation.

What's going to be enormously important is exactly which movie - and in what numbers - people want to see this weekend at their neighborhood multiplex. And it won't just be important to the people in the coastal counting houses, either. A good argument could be made that the results of this weekend's movie box office will be an irreplaceable X-ray of the national psyche at a crucial moment of American history. Put it together, in fact, with the weekend's network TV ratings and you'd have a close and intimate portrait of national yearnings and overall mood following unprecedented national trauma.

This is the first weekend since it happened that both the nation's movie houses and the new TV season have been fully ready for business.

That's, by far, the most important thing about Ben Stiller's "Zoolander." But there's another thing, too. It is, in its way, one of the smartest sideswipes we have at the whole world of Dumb Chic that has grown up around us like some poisonous vegetation.

Stiller's aim is true here, with his co-writer Drake Sather. He can't always think of smart things to do in every second of "Zoolander" but he's got an oddly important target and he knows it. The place where fashion nonsense, pop music pomp and media hype meet is more than a bit of a national disgrace in a new century and Stiller is not going to let us forget it.

So underneath the extreme wacked-out and stretched-out silliness of "Zoolander," there is a serious point about this creature in the penguin P.J.'s and the snakeskin jump suits. His world, for one thing, is predicated on Third World labor exploitation (or, as the fashion consortium likes to put it, "the right of children to work," which is "under attack"). And its obscenely hyped world of heads filled with cottage cheese is, as much as anything, responsible for all sorts of anorexic and bulimic teens who actually think the conformation of runway and fashion catalog models has something to do with the way real human bodies ought to look.

With everything else going on around him, the deepest and most serious secret shame of Derek Zoolander isn't that he couldn't think his way out of a paper bag but that, as he sashays down the world's fashion runways, he never quite learned how to turn to his left. With the encouragement of VH-1, which co-produced the film, Ben Stiller may have this pop music/fashion/media nexus knocked.

Stiller's father Jerry, plays Zoolander's mentor, Maury Baulstein of Ball's Models. Will Ferrell plays the evil fashion designer and fashion consortium operative Mugatu, a fellow who was once the guitar/synth player for the blissfully forgotten group Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Owen Wilson plays Zoolander's chief rival Hansel, another genius who, as a kid "was always interested in what bark was made of on a tree."

Nice cameos are done by Jon Voight, Vince Vaughn, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Duchovny (as a conspiracy-theorizing hand model), Gary Shandling and, yes, in a very funny scene, David Bowie, the good gray eminence of the world "Zoolander" is so smart about.

It is, to be sure, a one-joke movie but its one joke is strong enough to earn enough compound comic interest to sustain a pretty funny - and covertly serious - movie.




** 1/2

(Out of four)


The world's dumbest male model becomes a pawn in an assassination plot. Comedy co-written, directed by and starring Ben Stiller. With Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell and Christine Taylor, above.

Opening Friday in area theaters


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