Zero Effect (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Zero Effect is a perfect example of how the medium in which a story is told can affect one's opinion of it. As a made-for-TV movie/series pilot, Zero Effect would hold a great deal of promise: it introduces offbeat characters like Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) and Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), who, over time, might become viewer favorites. And the premise -- a modern-day Sherlock Holmes -- while not tremendously original, has at least as much promise as Columbo. But there's a problem: Zero Effect is not intended as the forerunner of a weekly television program; it's designed as a theatrical motion picture, and, in that category, it turns out to be disappointingly ordinary.

Just in case there's any confusion, let me state at the outset that there's no doubt that writer/director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) intended this to be an homage to (that sounds so much nicer than "rip off of") Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous fictitious detective. Zero shares several key characteristics with Holmes: both are loners by nature who avoid emotional entanglements and base their seemingly-miraculous deductions on objectivity and observation. The relationship between Zero and Arlo isn't unlike that of Holmes and his faithful assistant, Watson. And Kasdan has lifted elements from Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia." In that story, Holmes meets Irene Adler, the female who will forever be known to him as "the woman." In Zero Effect, the protagonist meets Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), who will forever be known to him as "the woman."

That said, Zero Effect isn't a direct re-writing of "A Scandal in Bohemia" -- the details are different. For a mystery, the plot is suitably convoluted, and there are a few surprise twists (most of which can be guessed by a seasoned fan of the genre -- the script is competent, but not excessively clever). The basic premise has Zero pulled out of his reclusive existence to investigate the blackmail of a prominent businessman (Ryan O'Neal). Of course, he isn't told the entire truth and it's up to him to uncover the hidden facts. In the process, Zero, who is brilliant at his work but inept at interpersonal interaction, finds himself fascinated by a woman, Gloria, whom he meets at a gym. But is she involved in the case, or just an innocent bystander?

Lately, actor Bill Pullman has been making a conscious attempt to change his "Mr. Nice Guy" image -- a personae that was solidified by his portrayal of the too-good-to-be-true President in Independence Day. Since then, Pullman has played a couple of sleazy characters in bizarre movies (Lost Highway and The End of Violence). Now, he adds Zero, a man who can be "tactless, inept… and rude," to his resume. It's a role that Pullman pulls off with aplomb. Ben Stiller is adequate (although no more) as the put-upon Arlo. Not surprisingly, some of the funniest moments of the film involve Stiller, but the actor and his character all-but-vanish after the film's first half-hour. The casting flaw is Kim Dickens, who fails to imbue Gloria with much life or passion. Worse still, her interaction with Zero doesn't generate more than a few fitful sparks. As essayed by Dickens, this woman hardly seems like the type who would interfere with the world's greatest private investigator's practice of the "fine art of detachment."

For its first thirty minutes, Zero Effect is actually quite enjoyable -- it's funny, off-beat, and fresh. The script has some moments of near brilliance (consider the security measures Arlo has to go through to gain entrance to his boss' abode), and, for a while, Zero Effect looks like it could be headed in the direction of a satire. However, time proves this not to be the case and, as the plot moves more into the arena of the traditional mystery, the proceedings drift into an auto-pilot mode with generic story elements and predictable plot twists. Ultimately, the film seems like it's about fifteen minutes too long, and there are enough scenes that don't work that it's not hard to pick out candidates for deletion. Kasdan maintains a light tone throughout, which is fortunate, since it prevents the movie from sinking into ponderousness. Zero Effect is a mixed bag, and it's sure to look a lot better when it eventually reaches HBO than it does playing on the big screen at the local multiplex.

Zero Effect (United States, 1998)

Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Kim Dickens, Ryan O'Neal, Angela Featherstone
Screenplay: Jake Kasdan
Cinematography: Bill Pope
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1998-01-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1