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Does anyone still want to go to the movies? Hell, yeah. This gathering together in the dark to watch images flicker on a screen rivals baseball as America’s national pastime. It’s a given that no movie will erase the memory of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that ripped the fabric of our existence on September 11th, 2001. It’s also a given that movies can help us mend, be it through laughter, tears or — at their most vital — artful provocation. And there is something else to consider: Just showing up at the multiplex defies an enemy that seeks to disrupt our normal life. In the words of renowned film critic Pauline Kael, who died a week before her country went to war: “Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again.”

Hollywood, out of misplaced sensitivity, seeks to coddle us. It’s one thing for Warner Bros. to pull Collateral Damage, the Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller that features Colombian terrorists blowing up a U.S. consulate; it’s another for Paramount Classics to delay the opening of the romantic comedy Sidewalks of New York because of its Manhattan location, or for Sony Pictures to digitally erase the Twin Towers from the upcoming Spider-Man. Is that how to best serve an audience: by pretending the scene of a tragedy never existed? In these perilous times, Americans will be called on for strength and sacrifice. Escapist films can offer fantasy as a relief from reality. Hollywood should not make the mistake of thinking that we don’t know the difference. Zoolander is a case in point. At press time, the film’s producers, including Paramount Pictures and VH1, considered postponing Ben Stiller’s teasing take on male models because the plot involves an assassination plot. Images of the World Trade Center were cut from the film’s Manhattan setting. Their fears seem groundless. Zoolander is an oasis of bracing comedy that comes at just the right time, when we’re parched for it.

Stiller, who directed the film and co-wrote the script with Drake Sather, plays Derek Zoolander, the infantile, breathy-voiced supermodel he first played on the VH1 Fashion Awards in 1996. It takes some getting used to watching this quick-witted actor portray an narcissistic idiot boy who still forgets to turn at the end of a runway. But from the moment we see Derek narrow his eyes and suck in his cheeks to rehearse his pouty new look — he calls it Magnum — the fun begins. Derek is celebrated for two previous looks (Blue Steel and Ferrari), each indistinguishable from the other. Stiller, aided by David Robinson’s witty costumes, deftly skewers fashion while turning a one-joke character into a jerk you can root for.

Superficiality has rarely been treated with such comic depth. At a fashion awards event, complete with celebrity cameos — my favorite is Fabio receiving the prize for best actor-model (he’s touched by the batting order) — three-time winner Derek loses the model-of-the-year award to surfer-dude newcomer Hansel (Owen Wilson makes a funny art of preening). “Hansel is so hot right now,” says Mugatu (Will Ferrell in gleefully wicked form), a fashion designer with nefarious designs on Derek.

But we’ll get to that. First, there’s Derek’s various crises to deal with. When the journalist Matilda Jeffries (the comely Christine Taylor, Stiller’s bride) eviscerates Derek as a model moron in a cover story, he dismisses her silly little publication. (It’s Time.) Then Derek has to face rejection from his father figure, Maury Ballstein (the always welcome Jerry Stiller, the director’s dad), head of the Balls Modeling Agency. After members of Derek’s entourage accidentally incinerate themselves in a lark involving gas nozzles, Derek goes home to the Pennsylvania mining town that spawned him, much to the horror of his coal-grimed dad (Jon Voight), who cringes when a TV at the local bar blares a commercial featuring Derek as a tail-flipping merman.

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Stiller shows new assurance as a director, following Reality Bites and The Cable Guy, and elicits pitch-perfect performances, including his own. His scenes with mellow dude Wilson, even the orgy stuff (you heard me), have an unexpected tenderness. And Ferrell, the droll heart of Saturday Night Live, is a knockout as the villain of the piece. His Mugatu must carry a plot that is sometimes pounded thinner than a veal scaloppine. Mugatu works for an organization that turns male models into assassins through brainwashing. Given Derek’s dire lack of gray matter, it’s a hoot to watch Mugatu and his kinky aide Katinka (Milla Jovovich) ply their trade. Derek has been earmarked to kill the prime minister of Malaysia. Why? For cracking down on the sweatshops that fashionistas use for cheap production.

Zoolander is a pure silliness that does no harm to anything but pretension, as when Mugatu uses Derek as the star of his new fashion line, Derelicte, based on the clothing of the homeless (watch for a hilarious bit from David Duchovny as a derelict who won’t take exploitation lying down). Will the brash exuberance of Zoolander go over less well in these sobering times? I think not. The gift of laughter remains now what it has always been: a celebration of life.

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