Zero Effect

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/04/05 15:40:46

"One of the all-time great detective movies... that nobody bothered to see."
5 stars (Awesome)

My first reaction to “Zero Effect” was that it was a modern-day “Fletch,” with a smarter-than-expected mystery, a kooky detective with a flair for false identities, and countless memorable one-liners. But a second viewing showed me that the film’s hero, Daryl Zero, is instead a modern day Sherlock Holmes, and double shame on me for not getting the reference on the first try.

The similarities range from the blatantly obvious (like Holmes, Zero has uncanny powers of deduction and a wise, trusty assistant) to the slightly obscure (the plot to “Zero Effect” has its roots in the story “A Scandal In Bohemia,” in which Holmes falls for a woman who clouds his powers of observation) to the little touches (Holmes had his snuff, while Zero, a man who hates to sleep, has his speed).

So who is Daryl Zero? He’s the world’s greatest private detective, a brilliant mind who relies on objectivity and observation - “the two obs.” But he’s also quite insane, a social misfit who locks himself away from the world, preferring to eat canned tuna and pretzels by the bulk, unable to fit into regular society. “I have mastered the fine art of detachment,” he informs us in an icy cool narration, and that he has; by not being of our world, he seems to understand it most. He just can’t handle living in it.

As played by Bill Pullman in his best performance to date, Zero is both the model of insanity and the model of genius. Pullman manages to make the character work by believing so deeply in him; his Zero is not a caricature, although he may do cartoonish things. He’s the straight man and the comic sidekick rolled into one. He says the weirdest, silliest damn things you’d ever heard, only he has total faith that every word he speaks is serious business. (Making things more complex, some of the stuff he says is serious business, and the contrast of the serious stuff to the goofy stuff only makes his character’s thoughts all the more profound.)

Zero’s actual sidekick is Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), a former attorney hired to be the detective’s link to the outside world. Like his boss, Arlo is both straight man and comic relief. It all merely depends on the mood of the scene. Stiller gives his usual frazzled guy routine here, and it works. More importantly, the two stars have an effective chemistry, with each actor playing off the other with impeccable comic timing.

The plot itself has millionaire Gergory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) hiring Zero for the seemingly simple task of finding his keys. You see, on Stark’s key ring is a key to a safe deposit box, which has a link to a blackmail scandal, which... well, I better not say any more. Part of the film’s sharpness is in its intricate detailing of the mystery, which slowly comes to light as Zero and Arlo investigate the blackmail scheme. Writer/director Jake Kasdan (who later went on to helm “Orange County”) has crafted a masterful puzzle here, and watching it play out with both seriousness and silliness is a genuine treat for any mystery fan.

But Kasdan has not put all his efforts merely into creating the mystery and whipping up a few strange one-liners for his stars. While it seems at first glance that this movie exists merely to present a goofy guy mucking around in the detective genre, a deeper look reveals that Kasdan has in fact taken great care in creating his characters. We truly come to take interest in the problematic Zero-Arlo relationship (Arlo’s thinking of quitting to spend more time with his fiancée, but should he?).

More importantly, this case gives Zero the chance to finally get out of his shell, and we root for him all the way. The detective meets the lovely Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), and for the first time in his deducing life, Zero tells us, he can’t immediately tell what someone else is thinking. Gloria isn’t there merely as some generic love interest. She’s there to bring Zero into the real world.

And so “Zero Effect” works in so many ways. Its comedy is sharp, its mystery sharper. Its characters are bright and lively and endlessly watchable. This underrated, hidden gem of a movie could very well be the best mystery you’ve never seen (unless, of course, you’ve seen it, in which case it becomes one of the best you have seen, but I digress). Zero is Holmes, and Fletch, and so much more, but most of all, he’s describable only as himself. Daryl Zero is a movie character for the ages.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.