Movie recommendation: Zero Effect.

I Find Karma (
Fri, 13 Feb 1998 14:05:41 -0800

"Zero Effect" is a cool little movie that is currently in theaters. The
plot is your basic detective story, but the movie is so much more than
that. After getting us revved up in the opening credits with Elvis
Costello's "Mystery Dance", we meet the detective Daryl Zero vicariously
through his associate describing him both to a client and to a friend.

To the client, the associate "sells" the world's most brilliant
detective. Someone who is keen, smooth as silk, always on top of
things, a master of disguises who knows 6 languages and how to fly an
airplance, and has powers of observation far exceeding those of mortal
man. To the friend, the associate complains that the world's most
brilliant detective is a reclusive shut-in who never sees outside his
penthouse apartment when he's not on a case, a drug-sucking, obnoxious,
rude misanthrope.

How can one man be two such completely different men -- charming in
public, a real jerk in private? With his nicely nuanced performance,
the actor pulls it off:

> Daryl Zero is, by his own astute estimation, the world's greatest
> private investigator. He can tell what you do for a living by the smell
> of your skin. He can size up your emotional state by the way you move on
> a treadmill. He solves mysteries of global import with a single phone
> call. He is also a paranoid, junk-food-devouring, speed-sucking slob who
> writes impossibly awful power ballads and doesn't know what day of the
> week it is. Inhabiting the grizzled body of Bill Pullman, he's a modern
> day Sherlock Holmes, right down to the substance abuse and musical
> aspirations.

> We first see the |berdetective through the eyes of his admiring if
> endlessly flummoxed Watson, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), Zero's
> emissary and his public face. It is Arlo who sits calmly on the
> couch at the beginning of "Zero Effect," negotiating with a
> potential new client with all the self-satisfied assurance of a Good
> Humor man cruising hell. He ticks off an impressive list of Zero's
> accomplishments, but he doesn't have to give too hard a sell --
> the customer, Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal), is practically
> sweating desperation. Stark's a hugely successful Portland
> businessman who's lost an incriminating key and is being
> blackmailed. And that's all he wants to say about it. It's obvious,
> even to someone whose powers of observation are less than
> Zero's, that Stark's a scumbag. But he can afford the detective's
> mind-boggling fees and can live with his eccentric terms --
> including Zero's insistence on not actually meeting or speaking
> with his client.

> Or so he says. What's actually going on is a clever deception --
> Arlo plays the traditional private dick role of questioner and
> confidant, while Zero, unknown and unrecognized, shadows his
> client to find out what he's really hiding. It isn't long before Zero
> has burrowed his way into Stark's -- and Stark's blackmailer's
> -- lives, unspooling long-buried secrets and hidden crimes with
> ease. Fueled on adrenalin and God knows what else, Zero clearly
> enjoys his work, burying himself behind an unnecessarily endless
> series of fake IDs and disguises, rifling though other people's
> drawers and spouting off trivia about fire codes and fingerprints.
> You get the definite impression Zero doesn't get out much, and
> when he does, he thinks every day is Halloween. The fun of "Zero
> Effect" is watching Pullman's face as Zero's mind clicks on each
> incriminating clue in his path, finding the stuff that's staring us in
> the face but only he sees. He's working what he calls "the two
> obs" -- observation and objectivity. But the second ob is
> compromised when he begins to fall for Gloria (Kim Dickens), an
> adventure-loving paramedic who believes Zero is a mild
> mannered accountant.

Things happen during his investigation, though, in which his life
becomes forever changed after he fails to remain objective. It's cool
to sit there and watch this transformation while he continues to solve
the case. Geeks should enjoy the detective's apartment, too: he can
make plane reservations in under a minute! :)

Roger Ebert liked the movie, too:

> To describe the details of the case would be wrong. They lead to
> surprises and reversals that are among the movie's pleasures (the last
> scenes force us to rearrange almost everything we thought we knew about
> the plot). The movie was written and directed by Jake Kasdan, son of
> writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, and it's an exercise in devious
> construction--like one of those Ross Macdonald novels in which the sins
> of the fathers are visited upon the children.

> If the plot is ingenious, it's the personal stuff that makes the movie
> increasingly delightful. Daryl Zero is baffled and challenged by Gloria,
> who is one of the few people he's ever met whose mind he can't more or
> less read. She fools him. She's shielded. She intuitively understands
> him the way he understands other people. When he claims to be in town at
> an accountant's convention, she finds a way to check that: She asks him
> to do her income tax.

> Midway through the movie, I was being nudged by echoes of another story,
> and I realized that ``Zero Effect'' was probably inspired by the
> relationship between Sherlock Holmes and the faithful Watson--Holmes,
> who could sit in his study and use pure deduction to solve a crime. When
> Zero described his methods, he sounds Holmesian: ``Objectivity ... and
> observation. The two ob's.''

One of the neat features of the movie is the theme that a person cannot
escape his own nature (a theme in "The Crying Game" too, though there
they beat you over the head with it, whereas here it is subtle):

> So much of the writing is not just clever but charming. Kasdan has a way
> of paralleling Zero's dialogue with that of the girl of his dreams so we
> can see how similar they are and how inevitable their love will be. He
> even gives them the same grammatical errors. Gloria says, "A person
> can't escape their own nature," and Zero happily iterates this line
> moments later. Nice touch.

So go see it. You know it's better than Spice World:


Given the choice between accomplishing something and just lying around,
I'd rather lie around. No contest.
-- Eric Clapton