A perfect cameo. A perfect snapshot of the year 2001.
The premiere, immediate reception, and eventual reappraisal of the film Zoolander is kind of fascinating, especially for a mostly harmless, aggressively silly 90-minute comedy in which Owen Wilson says the phrase “dera-lick my balls, capitán.” Zoolander arrived a mere two weeks after September 11, 2001, and history shows this fashion industry spoof wherein a male model (Ben Stiller, who also directed) is brainwashed to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia was not the balm this country needed to start healing. Instead, the film was pretty much savaged to pieces, with Roger Ebert famously going so hard he eventually apologized to Stiller. (“There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world,” his review started. “As this week's Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander.”) But, as these things usually go, a combination of mild box office success, the home video market, and a script that's endlessly easy to quote gained Zoolander a cult following, a belated sequel, and the type of beloved pop culture ingratiation that leads to big retrospectives on its 20th anniversary.
I'd like to make one thing very clear: Absolutely none of this information popped into my head when I learned Zoolander was turning 20. Instead, as I have done every single day for the past 20 years, I thought of Billy Zane's roughly three-and-a-half-minute cameo in this film, which remains a crystalline snapshot of a specific moment in time, a genuinely hilarious encapsulation of where we were in the year 2001 so pure I cannot even think of it without Lifehouse's “Hanging By a Moment” blasting from every speaker in a 10-mile radius. Sweet baby Zane, it's perfect.