|Written by Kim Wilson|
|Monday, 13 July 1998|
Darryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is in many ways a Sherlock Holmes for the '90s, a genius at deduction who is clueless when it comes to his own interactions with others. Zero considers himself the world's greatest living detective and insists on maintaining his anonymity with clients, sending his loyal, but much-abused associate Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) to conduct any in-person transactions.
As he investigates the case of a blackmailed businessman (Ryan O'Neal) with a complicated past, Zero veers between hilarious blindness to his own behavior and glimmers of genuine insight. As he focuses on the likely culprit, the detective finds himself becoming emotionally involved in a way that he supposed was impossible; he is also entirely taken by surprise at Arlo's impending mutiny.
If it must be squeezed into a genre, 'Zero Effect' could be termed a semi-comic detective thriller, but director/writer Jake Kasdan breaks conventions at every turn. The movie has unexpected, but welcome shifts of tone and rhythm, often droll yet oddly elegiac, with a central character who emerges as engagingly weird. Pullman does a marvelously smooth job of whipsawing from instant to instant between comical self-involvement, hyper-rational calm observation and a plaintive (albeit much denied) need for human contact. Stiller does a good job as the increasingly resentful Arlo, and former romantic leading man O'Neal is highly effective as a man in whom social power and psychological weakness have combined to create a cowardly monster.
Of the 'Zero Effect' DVD's bonus features, Kasdan's diffident audio commentary is worth checking out; there's a kind of charm in how unsure he sounds about the whole notion of talking at length about his work. There's even a little sweepstakes bonus attached to listening to the whole spiel, though with only five bucks at stake, you'll either want to hear the filmmaker's remarks for their own sake or not at all. Visually, the film's cool, dark look adds a layer of melancholy that serves the material by subtly stylizing it.
It's understandable that someone would want to make a film as idiosyncratic as 'Zero Effect,' but it's amazing and much to Kasdan's credit that he was allowed, the first time out the gate, to bring his vision to the screen with its eccentric character riffs and narrative whorls intact. The answer to one of the story's central puzzles--why a killer's fingerprints were left all over a murder site after the hit had been carried out--is a good metaphor for the film as a whole. The motives are unpredictable, yet true to an overriding inner logic.