Jake Kasdan, son of one of the best screenwriters around, breaks into filmmaking by writing and directing this hard-to-categorize detective story. Part mystery, part comedy, part character study and part romance, for the most part Kasdan manages to combine the genres successfully and create a captivating film.
Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is a modern day Sherlock Holmes. The parallel is present down to his love of music (though Zero plays the guitar rather than the violin), and his addiction to drugs (amphetamines, rather than morphine). He even titles his cases with such Sherlockian epigrams as The Case of the Mismatched Shoelaces, The Case About the Man Who Lied About His Age, or The Case of the Hired Gun Who Made Way Way Too Many Mistakes.
However Zero’s observance of the fine art of detachment, though it makes him a brilliant private investigator, makes him somewhat of a self-imposed outcast in society. He could do nothing without the legwork of his trusty assistant Dr. Watson, I mean Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller).
Arlo is not happy with his job. He is thrilled to be around Zero’s brilliance, but his bizarre behavior, and strange requests, are frustrating to the former lawyer. And they’re even more so to his girlfriend, Jess (Angela Featherstone), who is fed up that her boyfriend’s boss means more to Arlo than her.
This is the situation when a new case comes knocking. Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neill) hires Zero to find his lost keys. It seems that he kept a safety deposit box key on the ring, and the box apparently contains some incriminating evidence. Now, Stark is being blackmailed, and needs to reclaim his key before the nightmare can end.
To solve this case, Zero reluctantly crawls out of his shell. However, this is when he is vulnerable…and this time he falls for charms of a wily paramedic, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), who may be involved in the blackmail scheme. For the first time, Zero has to question his own objectivity, as he finds his client less and less sympathetic.
Zero Effect is weakest in its obviously “wacky” scenes depicting Daryl Zero’s odd behavior. Such scenes might be appropriate in an out-and-out satire, making Zero an Ace Ventura-ish character. However, there’s a much meatier movie in here…it just takes a while to get out.
That’s not to say that there’s not a place for humor in this film. In fact, some of the best scenes are Ben Stiller’s wonderfully underplayed comic moments of absolute disgust and frustration with his employer. However, the over-the-top scenes never quite gel with the rest of the film, and they aren’t funny enough to stand on their own.
Once the investigation is underway, however, Zero’s brilliance really begins to shine. His lightning quick inferences are as fascinating as many of Sherlock’s own. As the mystery begins to unfold, Zero’s deductions lead the plot in interesting directions, but never lose the viewer.
Zero Effect works well during its romantic scenes as well. Zero’s relationship with Gloria is low-key, but it hits all the right notes. However, we are always kept distant from Gloria’s character. She’s given plenty of development, but we never understand what she is thinking. Perhaps that may be intentional: to place the audience in Zero’s zone of detachment. But, on the whole, it is frustrating.
Bill Pullman, when he’s not spacing out, creates a vibrant character in Daryl Zero. There’s one moment when Zero briefly connects to the world which he has managed to detach from for many years, and it is shockingly moving…expressing a seriousness that heretofore was unassociated with the character, but one which fits in well. And, although it is sometimes hard to take a detective called “Zero” seriously, it is at this moment that the viewer understands the meaning behind the name.
Although Zero Effect is a bit awkward in places, it is a strong debut for Kasdan, and shows great promise.