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DECENCY: <I> ZOOLANDER</I> AND <I>DINNER RUSH</I>

LongIsland.com

by Ben Kenigsberg Zoolander is a comedy about an incredibly dim-witted male model who only has one pose. Derek Zoolander, the model in question, is played by Ben Stiller, ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg



Zoolander


is a comedy about an incredibly dim-witted male model who only has one pose. Derek Zoolander, the model in question, is played by Ben Stiller, a comic actor who pretty much also only has one pose.

While he often gets cast in nebbishy roles, the essence of Stiller's brand of humor (except in

Keeping the Faith

) is meanness. He's hateful in admittedly funny films like

Flirting with Disaster

and

There's Something About Mary

.

Meet the Parents

turns sour when his character stops being an innocent victim and paints a stripe on a cat to make it look like De Niro's.

Stiller's Zoolander character makes fun of ugly people, trivializes the lives of impoverished children, and even tries a blackface gag. Except for the blackface gag, all of the above could be funny, but Stiller is so one-note that his schtick starts to seem like a reject from

Saturday Night Live

. Derek Zoolander is less like Austin Powers than like the football player in high school who got all the girls -- for what reason, you never knew.

But even though

Zoolander

is funniest when Stiller isn't on screen, it's good Stiller hasn't totally neutered his comedy. This summer,

American Pie 2

actually gave us a glimpse of how a wholesome gross-out comedy might look. In an age where offending viewers is the last priority on Hollywood's checklist, you have to tip your hat to a guy like Stiller -- a comedian who, as far as I can tell, is completely out of touch with standards of modern decency. That's not a bad thing -- some of the best comedies are the most offensive -- but Stiller can't forge his film into a raunchy satire of the fashion world, which is what he's aiming for.

Stiller, who directed and co-wrote the movie, is at his best when he's lampooning models' lifestyles, but even then, there are bigger laughs in Douglas Keeve's fashion-world documentary

Unzipped

(1995). The best gag in the film involves an awards show for male models -- a wannabe Oscars -- in which Fabio wins Best "Model 'Slash' Actor." The award is, apparently, one step below Best Model.

Derek loses that coveted award to Hansel (Owen Wilson), a surfer-mentality model ("I didn't want to be an astronaut -- I was more interested in what bark was made of") who's just a hair less self-absorbed than Derek. The loss of the award, plus the damage caused by a profile written by

Time Magazine

journalist Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), throws Derek's career into a tailspin.

Big-shot designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) finally recruits Derek to model for a new line of clothing, called Derilicte, inspired by the garb of New York's hobos. (Half a chuckle.) Derek doesn't know that Mugatu actually wants to brainwash him and instruct him to kill the prime minister of Malaysia, who's anti-sweatshop and thus, bad for the fashion industry.

Stiller has surprisingly little fun spoofing

The Manchurian Candidate

, although he throws in a not-half-bad homage to

The Parallax View

. His

2001

spoof, though, is priceless.

If there's saving grace in

Zoolander

, it comes from the supporting cast. Jerry Stiller, Ben's father, is quite funny as Maury Ballstein, an agent for New York's top models. Wilson can have a real comic charm when he's on his own; his slacker sensibility nicely counterbalances Stiller's lisping. Jon Voight has a funny cameo as Derek's coal-miner father. And David Duchovny shows up in an X-Files-inspired role to elicit a chuckle.

Ferrell is surprisingly awful, and Taylor, Stiller's wife, is just eye candy.

I suppose we can be thankful that

Zoolander

is closer in spirit to the comedy of the Marx Brothers than it is to the, er, comedy of

The Cable Guy

, Stiller's last unbridled directorial effort. But with all of Stiller's nasty ingredients, it's disappointing that

Zoolander

turned out to be a high-profile variation on

Dumb and Dumber

.

The latest entry in the food-movie genre (think

Big Night

), Bob Giraldi's


Dinner Rush


, which played at last year's film festival, doesn't really have anything new to offer. But it does have a number of nicely observed moments, and it's particularly effective at evoking the feel of a place -- a TriBeCa restaurant -- even if, in this case, that place isn't far from home.

Danny Aiello stars as the restaurant owner, Louis. His son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini), the chef, wants to make the restaurant a classy eatery -- replete with pretentious, elaborate dishes -- even though his father wants to serve simple, good Italian food. And Louis, whose partner was just murdered by the mob, has more important things on his mind.

The movie is set almost entirely within the restaurant. As such, the most lively moments are bits of human interaction: a snoot (Mark Margolis) tells a waitress (Summer Phoenix) that he doesn't like her paintings, which hang on the restaurant's walls; a bartender gambles with customers, telling them he knows the answer to every question; a blackout forces the staff to light the restaurant with candles; and the sous chef (Kirk Acevedo) cooks sausage and peppers for Louis -- with Udo's begrudging permission.

The film is sometimes stagy, but the restaurant really starts to feel like home after a while. Comfort food is all that

Dinner Rush

offers, but it's a decent meal.