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Zero Effect

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 30 January 1998

  Written and Directed by Jake Kasdan.

Starring Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller,
Kim Dickens, Angela Featherstone,
and Ryan O'Neal.

Finally, something to write home about! This hip blend of Sherlock Holmes and Howard Hughes is an offbeat suspense comedy featuring Bill Pullman (presidential timber in Independence Day) as Daryl Zero, the self-proclaimed "world's most private detective" and his sidekick, straight-laced Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller, who co-starred in Flirting With Disaster, one of the best-written films of 1996).

Lawrence Kasdan was a few years over 30 when he directed and wrote Body Heat (1981). At 22, son Jake has helmed and scripted a premiere effort, small and sweet, melting like an M&M in your mouth. I giggled a lot as I watched this film, much the same way the character portrayed by James Earl Jones chuckled as he ventured off into the cornfield in Field of Dreams. Little touches add to the lunacy. Like an absurdly stocked kitchen featuring a refrigerator filled with cans of Tab, stainless steel shelves piled high with cans of Campbell Soup and Bumble Bee Tuna, plastic spoons, and a bulk bag of pretzels. Or an alarm code longer than the number of letters in Mississippi. This is the home of reclusive Daryl Zero, a social misfit who pens awful songs ("Let's Run Off and Get Married"), actually written by Pullman and Kasdan, probably after polishing off a six-pack and commiserating over a friendship that has fostered since Kasdan fils met Pullman on the set of The Accidental Tourist ten years ago.

Zero is definitely lacking in the social graces when not on a case, and he has solved some of the world's most stultifying mysteries, including The Case Of The Man With Mismatched Shoelaces and The Case of the Hired Gun Who Made Too Many Mistakes (an obviously skewered nod to the episode names used in the old Perry Mason television series). Throughout the film, he hacks away on his computer screen, documenting his many successes, since his black-attired (suit, shirt, and tie) assistant/crutch Arlo prefers not to take on the scribblings that Dr. Watson would willingly accept. Arlo is the front man/go-between, a smooth-tongued former attorney who scouts out potential clients, while privately expounding at a local watering hole the frustration he feels with his eccentric employer. His current customer is wealthy Portland tycoon Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal, in a wonderfully drawn performance), who wants Zero to find some lost keys. Yeah, lost keys, and they've been missing for a year. Zero, intrigued by Stark's reluctance to discuss particulars in the matter, shuffles off his agoraphobic chains and heads to Oregon in the disguise of Nick Carmine, an L.A. accountant. He finds a lot more than just Gregory Stark's lost keys. The world's greatest observer finds, and eventually falls for, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), a seemingly straight-arrow paramedic whose growing involvement in the case is shown from Zero's distanced point-of-view, often in slow motion recollections.

"I always say the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: Objectivity and Observation, or 'The Two Obs' as I call them."
        – Daryl Zero

These little bon mots are sprinkled throughout the film, often with deadpan delivery. Devilishly divine homilies that make you smile. "Sometimes what you're looking for is right in front of your nose." Stiller gets his share of zingers, too. In one scene with O'Neal at a playground, Arlo is pushing the swing of a little girl as Stark approaches. As the child leaves, Stark asks if she's his kid. "No, she's a rental." McGuffins are there too.

A snappy musical score by The Greyboy Allstars and well-placed camerawork by Bill Pope add to the fun. In one scene with Arlo and Stark at a nearly deserted restaurant in subdued afternoon light, the camera tracks up, sideways, and in from the floor. Odd angles, but, of course, it is an odd film.

The movie grabs you in and doesn't let you go till two hours later. Of course, Zero solves the mystery. Was there any doubt? I wager not everyone will enjoy this film as much as I have (and I've seen it twice). Let it grow on you. Like a fine wine. Kick off your shoes (well maybe not in the theater), sit back, relax, and enjoy. Welcome to the wacky world of Daryl Zero.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.