Zero Effect (1998) - Trailer Included
Writer/Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Bill Pullman, Ryan O’Neal, Ben Stiller, Kim Dickens (Deadwood, Lost, Thank You For Smoking), Angela Featherstone, Matt O’Toole
“I always say that the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: objectivity and observation, or "the two obs" as I call them. My work relies on my ability to remain absolutely, purely objective, detached. I have mastered the fine art of detachment. And while it comes at some cost, this supreme objectivity is what makes me, I dare say, the greatest observer the world has ever known.” – Daryl Zero
Released the same year as The Big Lebowski and dare it be said occupying a similar niche Writer/Director Jake Kasdan’s debut feature lacks the flamboyant cinematography of the Dude’s opus but the quixotic dialogue and quirky tone have made it a comedy cult classic.
Zero Effect is a gumshoe character study, wrapped in a who-dunnit where the answers are not as important as the questions. At his core the title character Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is an exaggeration of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth Sherlock Holmes. When on assignment Zero is quicksilver genius, a master of nuanced human psychology with intuitive understanding and super human powers of observation. When not solving a case he is an amphetamine crazed lunatic cocooned from society, incapable of coherent communication and fearful of the public world.
“I'm telling you he never even leaves the house, okay. I mean he's like some kind of recluse. Complete freak. No social life. In fact, no social skills. It's a strange fucking thing. When he's working, the smoothest operator you've ever seen. Brave, slick, cunning, can do anything. Soon as he gets off work, it's all gone. Afraid to go to the dry cleaners. Literally. Too uncomfortable in his own skin to go out and eat. Tactless and inept. Rude, too. Just an asshole.’ – Steve Arlo
Lawyer come assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) is his Watson. A tireless surrogate for Zero, corralling each new job and ensuring that the “world’s most private detective” can remain functional. Grappling with the absurdities of his position and the strain on his relationship with fiancé Jess, (Angela Featherstone) Steve is forced to decide between his commitment to his client and that of his own personal life.
Chronicling his “method of detection” while solving the latest mystery for wealthy corporate piranha Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) , Zero must solve the case of the missing keys, uncover a blackmailer and somehow remain marooned on his island of detached objectivity.
“Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you're only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you're sure to find some of them.” – Daryl Zero
John Doe Says:
The combination of absurdist hilarity, intelligent wit and tumble dried logic make Zero Effect an engaging and amusing exercise in genre deconstruction. Heavy reliance on its text heavy screenplay could be seen as a flaw, but Bill Pullman’s strong performance, the inclusion of some choice musical cues and a knowing mood shroud its weaknesses like so many misleading clues to a crime.
Jake Kasdan directs Bill Pullman
There is confidence in his direction of Effect, allowing for randomness while remaining focused on delivering critical plot points and maintaining pace. The melding of sound and image has sporadic flair, supported by the indie score of the Greyboy Allstars. The cinematography of Bill Pope (The Matrix, Bound) avoids the noir aesthetic that could easily have been adopted and for the most part opts for discretion of the lens.
Romance distracts from the case.
Even if all other factors were inferior Bill Pullman’s performance here is exceptional. Unabashed in his characterization, his dedication to juggling zany freedom with calculated intellect dominates. Reminding that quality like The Serpent and the Rainbow and Lost Highway were no fluke on a C.V that includes atrocities like ID4 and While You Were Sleeping.
The waft of Ben Stiller’s name in the credits normally repels the Doe but like Royal Tenenbaums sometimes his obnoxious presence works. As the assistant he has the thankless job of providing background information and succeeds in the task, where he fails is in making us care for the crisis of the role.
The unique vibes of Kim Dickens have been sinfully underused in the industry despite her obvious talent for emoting nontraditional women. As Gloria Sullivan she shows the range that would make her standout later in Deadwood, Lost and Thank You For Smoking.
Ryan O'Neal returns.
Zero Effect was an instant John Doe favourite when it was first in cinemas. Viewed numerous times since, it’s one of those films that should have been addressed long before now on the site and last night’s screening served to highlight its absence. It’s a fun film full of idiosyncratic pleasures. A detective film that is about the journey, not solutions and offers off centre laughs that appeal to the slanted perspective of pop culture addicts.
Trailer for Zero Effect