Writer-director Jake Kasdan's Zero Effect gets its title from its main character, Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman). Zero is perhaps the world's greatest private detective, solving many a case without even setting foot outside of his well-secured penthouse apartment. And that's the problem--Zero is unquestionably a head case, a shut-in with no social skills whatsoever, writing bad love songs, guzzling cans of Tab, and eating tuna straight from the can when not working on a case. His only contact with the outside world comes in the form of his overworked assistant, attorney Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller).
From the sounds of it, Zero Effect sounds like one of those painfully labored and unfunny comedies focusing on a wacky hero who somehow achieves brilliance through his sheer stupidity and dumb luck. In reality, though, the film could not be more different. While it does have its share of humorous moments, Zero Effect is an intriguing character study of its protagonist disguised as a conventional comic mystery.
Not that there isn't a mystery involved, and it is certainly one of Zero Effect's weakest points. Zero is hired by wealthy Portland businessman Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) to recover a set of lost keys. Naturally, this simple investigation leads to something more complex, mainly a blackmail scheme involving Stark and a paramedic named Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens). How this mechanical mystery plays out is flat, suspenseless, and more than a little predictable, not helped at all by Kasdan's unnecessarily languid pacing.
However, with the development of Gloria's relationship with an incognito Zero the film achieves a surprising poignance. Zero may be an oddball, but he's also incredibly intelligent, and that is the root cause of his reclusivity. Throughout the film, Zero describes his investigation technique in a "how-to" voiceover, and it is here that he explains the key to his success: "the two 'obs'"--objectivity and observation. In becoming the best P.I. in the world, Zero has mastered the art of objectivity, literally and figuratively detaching himself from the rest of the world. When the investigation forces him to deal directly with Gloria, Zero is treated to his first genuine emotional human contact and a glimpse of what real life is about--direct involvement, not objective observation. This is not to say that Zero Effect degenerates into something sappy and touchy-feely; the power of the relationship and its effects on Zero and Gloria derives from its subtle execution.
Zero Effect is not a perfect debut for Kasdan (son of Lawrence); in addition to the by-the-numbers mystery, there is also a weak subplot revolving around the strain Arlo's work puts on his relationship with his girlfriend (Angela Featherstone). But even in its flawed form, Zero Effect is a lot more accomplished and mature than a lot of work by more established filmmakers.
RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)
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