Zero Effect (1998) marked the auspicious debut of writer/director Jake Kasdan, son of famous filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill). The film was a quirky blend of detective story, comedy and romance – a contemporary spin on the classic Sherlock Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It also provided, for perhaps the first time, the ideal vehicle for character actor Bill Pullman. This mix of genres resulted in a lukewarm critical reaction and failure to recoup even half of its five million dollar budget at the box office. Zero Effect disappeared onto home video where it found a second life and currently enjoys something of a cult following.
Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is an eccentric private investigator that deals with his clients via a proxy – his long-suffering associate Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) who has become frustrated dealing with his employer’s odd hours and even odder habits. It doesn’t help that Arlo’s girlfriend Jess (Angela Featherstone) is putting pressure on him to settle down. The latest case that Arlo brings to Zero involves a rich businessman by the name of Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) who has lost the key to a very important safety deposit box and is also being blackmailed. In keeping with his finely tuned investigative abilities, Zero already knows Stark’s backstory (“Son of a fatman,” he deadpans at one point) right from the get-go and finds the man’s keys in no time. The blackmail part takes a little longer.
When Zero meets a beautiful paramedic known as Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) during the course of his investigation, he not only considers her potential suspect, but also begins to develop feelings for her, much to his surprise. The film shifts its tone from an offbeat comedy to a character-driven romance while never completely abandoning the mystery that kicked things off in the first place. It’s an unconventional romance to say the least as Zero initially pretends to be interested in Gloria only to find himself actually falling in love with her and she with him. She’s a bit of an enigma, which intrigues him and he gets deeper involved with her in order to uncover her motives.
The film grabs one’s attention right away with Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance” playing over the opening credits and this is rather apt as the song is about romantic and sexual inexperience, which could easily apply to Zero. He is completely clueless when it comes to love and relationships, much like the narrator of Costello’s song. Our introduction to Zero is an intriguing build-up as Arlo hypes his employer’s many impressive skills to a drinking buddy only to trash his personal habits in the next breath.
Next, Arlo enters Zero’s apartment, which is protected like a top secret fortress, complete with a keypad security system and a front door with five deadbolt locks. The camera follows Arlo around the place and one can hear guitar playing and really bad singing off in the distance. Arlo finds Zero in his bedroom and our first shot of enigmatic detective is of him singing and playing an acoustic guitar while wearing long underwear and a kimono. Apparently, he’s been awake for three days on speed and is given to eating tuna straight from the can, washing it down with a can of Tab (his drink of choice judging by his fridge, which is mostly taken up with the beverage).
Zero Effect starts off very much in the tradition of a film like Fletch (1985) with Zero adopting all kinds of disguises and identities in order to follow his client and get information from potential suspects. In a nice touch, each identity has its own driver’s license with a picture that looks a little crazier than the last. The pictures aren’t overtly wacky, but just slightly off-kilter as to be wryly funny. Zero Effect is filled with little moments like this, or an amusing scene, like the one where Arlo and Zero meet at a bank of pay phones at an airport because, according to the detective, two guys talking there is “a little fishy.”
After years of playing nice guy supporting roles in films like The Accidental Tourist (1988) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Bill Pullman finally got a substantial role in which to sink his teeth into and it also allowed him to demonstrate his range as an actor. He fully immerses himself in the role, playing a wildly eccentric character, but the actor knows just how to avoid veering off into goofy caricature territory by showing different sides of this man. It is all in the little choices he makes, like the way he delivers a certain line of dialogue, taking the most ordinary phrase or word and giving it just the right off-kilter spin to make it feel fresh, that makes his performance so fun to watch.
Ben Stiller’s Arlo is the Dr. Watson to Zero’s Sherlock Holmes albeit updated for a contemporary setting. While on a case, he and Zero are the best at what they do, but during their downtime they have a dysfunctional relationship and Stiller does a nice job showing how increasingly exasperated Arlo is from being basically at his employer’s beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a nice change of pace for Stiller back when he was more willing to take chances in films like Reality Bites (1994) where he played a self-absorbed jerk and Permanent Midnight (1998) where he played a spiraling drug addict, and get out of his comfort zone of playing goofballs or neurotic messes. Stiller is an ideal foil for Pullman, but is more than capable of the dramatic stuff as evident in a scene where Arlo tells Zero that he’s going to quit after their current case is over. Of course, Zero freaks out and Arlo lays it all out, telling him what’s at stake and Stiller does an excellent job of conveying the seriousness of Arlo’s decision.
Much like Pullman, Kim Dickens has rarely been given an opportunity to showcase her skills as an actress in a substantial role (a notable exception is the under-appreciate Allison Anders film, Things Behind the Sun). Beyond her obvious beauty, the actress conveys a fierce intelligence that is crucial for this role as Gloria is supposed to be an intellectual challenge for Zero. She is not an easy character to read and this intrigues both us and Zero. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that she’s the real mystery that Zero must figure out.
Bill Pullman met Jake Kasdan on the set of Lawrence Kasdan’s film The Accidental Tourist and they became good friends. While making Wyatt Earp (1994) – also for the elder Kasdan – Jake was making a documentary about the film. He told Pullman about wanting to be a writer and that some day he’d write a screenplay for the actor. Kasdan was influenced by the short stories of Sherlock Holmes and drawn to the idea of “master detectives with highly developed minds who have some sort of manner of deficiency.” He wanted to write about “the ways that people can really be good at some things and really bad at other things.” Pullman figured that it would never happen and was surprised when, a few years later, Kasdan offered him Zero Effect.
Zero Effect received mostly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The first time we see him, Zero seems like a goofy, off-the-shelf weirdo. But Pullman, from While You Were Sleeping and Independence Day, can drop the façade and let you see the complications inside.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “both Pullman and the slyly restrained Stiller keep their characters entertaining even Kasdan’s interest is elsewhere. For all its admirable ambitions, this loosely focused feature has the makings of a better buddy story than detective tale anyhow.” The Los Angeles Times’ Jack Mathews wrote, “Zero Effect has its rough spots. The neurotic flourishes that Kasdan uses to introduce Zero manage to be both precious and over the top at the same time … And though the dialogue is generally sharp, there are bad patches.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “in a thanklessly ill-defined leading role, Pullman, that fine vanilla pudding of an actor, does the thing he does best, gamely throwing raisins of idiosyncrasy our way until something sticks. Finally, in her review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein wrote, “Zero Effect is more an interesting idea for a detective movie than it is an interesting film. Kasdan is onto something, but he needs to develop it.”
I keep coming back to “Mystery Dance” and how I believe that Kasdan included it in the opening credits as a kind of foreshadowing as if he were trying to tell us that Zero Effect really isn’t about they mystery that Zero investigates, but about his development as a human being. By the end of the film, he realizes that there is more to life than work and that people can’t simply be observed analytically. One must get in there and mix it up by having an actual relationship with another person. Kasdan’s film starts off as sly comedy with Stiller playing straight man to Pullman’s eccentric oddball, but then something happens partway through when Zero gets romantically involved with Gloria and the tone shifts gears rather seamlessly into a drama of sorts. Best of all, the film allows Pullman to showcase the idiosyncratic tendencies that usually lurk underneath his good-looking façade. It took Kasdan creating a role tailor-made for the actor to show off his comedic talents as well as his dramatic chops. It’s a versatility that he rarely gets to demonstrate, which is a shame because he does it so well in Zero Effect.
Harris, Will. “Bill Pullman on How to Play the President and Being the Guy Who Doesn’t Get the Girl” A.V. Club. January 10, 2013
King, Susan. “Son of Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times. January 29, 1998.