Zero Effect (1998)

reviewed by
Ted Prigge

A Film Review by Ted Prigge
Copyright 1998 Ted Prigge

Writer/Director: Jake Kasdan Starring: Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Kim Dickens, Ryan O'Neal, Angela Featherstone

Daryl Zero lives on the secluded top floor of a high-rise hotel, sealed behind metallic doors with six separate locks, surveillance in every room, a station of several computers so that he can work efficiently, and a refrigerator full of Tab sodas, which I thought went out of business but I guess I was wrong. He's unlike most detectives in many ways, but the chief difference between him and anyone else is that he never communicates with his clients: he was a kind of lawyer helping him out who goes to see potential clients, and gives them updates while Daryl uses disguises and aliases to dig deep and find out the answer to whatever job he's hired for. He's a master of illusion, he's the best detective in the world, and he's a total freak.

The weird thing about "Zero Effect" is that it's not really the quirky thriller nor the plug for a TV detective like it may seem to be at first. It creeps up on you where you least expect it, and in the last movie you'd think to have a heart, you find one. Before you know it, you're feeling something for all the characters, and you're more involved in their lives than you are the mystery that this film poses.

The story revolves around one case of Daryl's, played wonderfully by Bill Pullman (whose talent seems to decrease as the budget of a film starring him increases), where he has to find a set of keys to a safe deposit box for a millionaire named Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal, trying to find work), and subsequently find out who's been blackmailing him for large amounts of money. Daryl never meets him, but he begins to sneakily find out things by posing as other people, namely a millionaire accountant in town for the weekend and working out at the same health club Gregory does. There's a fascinating set of scenes where he confronts him as an anonymous person, and then goes back to show how he got amazing amounts of information just by mincing a couple words with him.

The running joke in the movie is that Daryl is incredibly observant about physical and psychological things, but that he comes up snake eyes when actually dealing with the emotions of other people he deals with. His long-time partner/lawyer, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller, showing that he's one of the best comic actors around), detests everything about him, and is desperately trying to find a way to break it to him that he doesn't want to work for him anymore so he can marry his girlfriend (Angela Featherstone). And he seems to never really notice that he's annoying and rude and selfish to everyone around him when he tries to do his bizarro detective work, which makes him completely antisocial.

Instead of the film going on like this, mocking everything that makes up Daryl, and giving us a mystery we are never really blown away by anyway, it gives us something better: a love story, in the weirdest movie. It does this by introducing another character, a woman named Gloria (Kim Dickens) whom he meets at the health club one day and is automatically able to figure out that she's a paramedic since she smells of it. Although turned off at first, she begins to be fascinated with him, and soon the two are discovering more and more about eachother, all the while at least one of them is lying.

"Zero Effect" was written and directed by Jake Kasdan, the son of famous directory Lawrence Kasdan, and he gives the film a comic yet dramatic feel. There's a real story here about characters that are interesting and likable, and he allows that to slowly and subtely come to focus while the mystery plot fades into the background. If I can say one thing bad against this film, it's that the mystery itself isn't all that intriguing. It uncovers a lot, mysteries where generations are harmed by past generations, and it allows a couple cool twists, but in all reality, do we really care about it once the love story has taken precedence? Why worry about a secret hit from 30 years ago when you can relish in a touching love story between two alienated and damaged people?

But, in all reality, that's the strength of this film. It gradually lets us forget about the mystery, and we soon become so involved with the character stories, including the story of Steve and his girlfriend, that we never even realize that it's taken the foreground. Sure, it's still quirky, and there's a lot of big laughs here, especially in the opening sequence which intercuts a meeting Steve has with Gregory and a conversation Steve has with a friend where he contradicts what he says over and over again. But a touching love story and one man's plight into beginning to understand the emotions of other people is something that I sure wasn't expecting, what with the opening promising another quirky thriller a la "Grosse Pointe Blank," but that I was all the more happier to allow happen.

MY RATING (out of 4): ***1/2

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