King Strut

Ben Stiller comforts jittery audiences with Zoolander, and Kevin Spacey means no harm to our planet either.

by Libby Gelman-Waxner

PremiereLibby1Nowadays, with the world getting so crazy, going to the movies feels very different. It’ s not just about looking for shots of the World Trade Center or wondering about whether terrorists will become the new action movie villains; it’s even weirder. I keep trying to decide if I want to forget about the real world and all of those occasionally misspelled bulletins underneath Paula Zahn’s face on CNN, or whether I actually want to think about larger issues, like life and death and the stars’ dress code for the Emmys. I just saw Zoolander, which was a terrific solution; Ben Stiller makes me appreciate the very best kind of insanity. He is so underrated; without calling a ton of attention to himself, he’s become both a stalwart, cutie-pie leading man and a major, fabulous loon. Ben stars as Derek Zoolander, a superstar male model on the skids. He talks in a breathy, earnestly dim voice, like a very delicate, sensual Elmer Fudd, and he’s seriously over-gelled. You can tell that Ben loves playing Zoolander – it’ s his Lear .

As Derek, Ben shows us the terrible burden of beauty, and he tries to fulfill his sacred responsibilities as a pinup, even as a younger, blonder model threatens to usurp his title; Zoolander isa little like watching an all-male-model episode of Beverly Hills 90210. Ben is eventually brainwashed by evil forces, leading to catwalk chaos. He also gets involved with a lovely reporter from Time, who’s played by Christine Taylor, Ben’s real-life spouse, and they’re adorable together; Ben is a little like Adam Sandler’s hyper, over-educated brother. Watching Zoolander made me happy; because I knew that Derek Zoolander was just the ticket for keeping the world safe and glossy.

Feeling strangely refreshed, I went to see K-Pax, even though the title sounded like some new, generic feminine hygiene product. K-Pax is a lushly produced, inspirational movie, like Phenomenon, Field ofDreams, or anything where a movie star plays a rascally angel who gets returned to Earth to help us out, usually around Christmas time. In K-Pax, Kevin Spacey plays a quasi-homeless man who gets put into a very deluxe, Marriott-style mental hospital because he claims to be an alien from another planet who travels on beams of light; he’s Tinkerbell with stubble and wraparound shades. Kevin is a great actor, but playing an alleged alien means that he mostly just tilts his head in strange ways, as if he’s stiff from a long car trip through the galaxies.

Kevin’s kindly, rumpled shrink is played by the always heavenly Jeff Bridges; somehow, I think that just having Jeff as my therapist would cure me instantly. Jeff is estranged from his son, who’s away at Dartmouth, and since their spat is never really explained, it seemed like it rested on the son’s choice of Ivy League school. Jeff keeps trying to analyze Kevin, who knows way too much about astrophysics, and he begins to suspect that Kevin might really be an alien. Kevin, meanwhile keeps busy by soothing the other mental patients on his ward, each of whom is assigned a major neurosis, although the primary symptoms of emotional disturbance in this film seem to be greasy bangs, thick eyeglasses, and extreme overacting. Jeff’s diagnostic technique resembles that of James Lipton, the moistly appreciative host of Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio; I
kept waiting for Jeff to ask his patients, “What’s your favorite sound?”

Eventually, Jeff starts to unravel the mystery of Kevin, and I won’t reveal the provocative, explosive conclusion, mostly because I didn’t quite understand it. It does, however, involve Jeff flying around the country to check up on Kevin’s background, as if he didn’t have a phone or fax. The enigmatic truth about Kevin somehow inspires Jeff to reconcile with his college-boy son; the movie suggests that aliens might be like candy stripers or secret Santas, shipped to Earth to leave helpful truths under our pillows.

K-Pax emphasizes the importance of family, which is the same message being stressed by so many celebrities lately, especially the ones with major prenuptial agreements and sex addictions. Because I always believe in following stars’ advice, especially in times of global unrest, I have been rying to hug my kids a lot, but they keep saying, “Mom, get off me.” My teenage daughter, Jennifer, told me that while all of the warfare does make her fearful, she takes comfort from our president’s frequent trips to New York and from Britney Spears’s shopping trips with her boyfriend, Justin Timberlake. My ll-year-old son, Mitchell Sean, says that he has confidence in our national leadership and in Jennifer Lopez’s second marriage, in white, to one of her dancers.

I’m proud of my kids and, in the interest of American justice, I’d also like to take a moment to apologize to Billy Bob Thornton. In a recent column, I discussed Billy Bob’s passionate marriage to the stunning Angelina Jolie, but, rest assured, I wish them only the best. As for me, I have taken spiritual sustenance from a single shot in the TV commercial for the upcoming caper film Ocean’s Eleven. In this scene, George Clooney and Brad Pitt simply stand next to each other in an elevator, and they are both so cool and gorgeous that, like so many people in troubled times, I have turned to prayer. I thank God for these two beyond-yummy movie stars; I also prayed for that elevator to stop on my floor, if you ask me. . ~

Premiere, January 2002
If You Ask Me by Libby Gelman-Waxner
Illustration by Robert De Michiell