Zero Effect

To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal In Bohemia”

Though Jake Kasdan’s undervalued 1998 debut feature Zero Effect is loosely based on the Doyle short story quoted above, the inspiration really came from just that first paragraph. Re-imagining Sherlock Holmes as a pompadoured weirdo in modern-day Los Angeles, Kasdan takes what appears to be a frivolous fish-out-of-water comedy into deeper, more unexpected places. Beyond the surface quirkiness—which there’s plenty of, and it’s awesome—the film has a surprising amount of insight into the savant mind and the way one person’s unique genius is not only linked to his dysfunction, but completely reliant on it. You can learn a lot about human beings when you consider yourself removed from the species; in every other respect, it’s something of a liability. 

Meet Daryl Zero, a sort of Holmes in extremis. The last name suggests a lot about his character. He’s uncompromising in his methods, to the point where he refuses to meet or speak to his clients, for fear of clouding his judgment. Instead, he sends his Watson, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), who serves as a trusty liaison and pitchman who’s skilled at explaining why clients need Zero’s services (“he can tell you where you were born, how old your mother was at the time, and what you had for breakfast, all within 30 seconds of meeting you”) while demanding an extravagant, non-negotiable fee. While Arlo, the audience’s surrogate, is suitably awed by his boss’ insights into the human mind, his exasperation gets a good venting, too. Zero’s list of quirks is never-ending, from the harmless (a fridge packed with cans of Tab) to the paranoid (an apartment protected by a bank vault, six heavy deadbolts, and a 10-digit security code) to the embarrassingly naïve (he’s never kissed a girl). He’s mastered the art of detachment, but as Arlo notes, the self-proclaimed “greatest observer the world has ever known” is too afraid to go the dry cleaners.

As played by Bill Pullman, Zero is both a cool, serenely confident logician and a certified nutcase—contradictions well-suited to an actor square-jawed enough to be the president in Independence Day, yet right at home in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. His one tic has always been a tendency to squint through performances, not as if he doesn’t understand things, or he’s dubious about what someone else is saying, but more as if he’s lost in some bizarre train of thought. In one of my favorite moments in Zero Effect, Zero drags Arlo away from his girlfriend in Los Angeles, puts him on a flight to Portland, and winds up communicating with him via two payphones about 10 feet apart from each other. When Arlo asks him why they’re on payphones, the mysteriously bearded Zero replies, with that trademark Pullman squint, “We can’t be too careful. Two guys in an airport… talking… It’s a little fishy.”

At a mere 23 years old, Kasdan not only knows his Holmes, he crafts a seemingly simple yet maddeningly dense plot that’s in line with Raymond Chandler detective fiction. (As precociously gifted sons of once-reputed but since faded Hollywood directors go—his father is Lawrence Kasdan, whose career is currently bookended by Body Heat and Dreamcatcher—I’d take him over Jason Reitman in a second. Especially since Jake Kasdan also directed The TV Set, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and various episodes of Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared.) Put succinctly, Zero Effect tackles the case of a tycoon who lost his keys. (Spoiler alert: They turn up in the place where most lost keys are found.) From there, it opens up into a tale of blackmail, family secrets, a decades-old murder, and obligatory twists and double-crosses. Ryan O’Neal plays the mysterious client, Gregory Stark, who wants Zero to figure out who’s blackmailing him while being discreet about why. Here, Zero reveals his amazing powers of deduction by noting what he’d learned simply by watching Stark on the treadmill:

The twin pillars of Zero’s detective work, objectivity and observations (“the two obs, as I call them”), start to crumble a little when he meets his Irene Adler in the exceedingly crafty Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens). Zero quickly pegs Gloria as the blackmailer, but in the process of figuring out her motives, he becomes smitten. Save maybe for Zero’s sleuthing scenes, their spiky relationship is the best thing about Zero Effect, and it falls under a small but grand movie tradition I call “the cat-and-mouse romance.” Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 screwball comedy Trouble In Paradise, about the interplay between thieves, is the classic example; in a key scene, they fall for each other by picking each other’s pockets over dinner. And it surfaced again recently in the underrated Duplicity, about opposing corporate-espionage agents who are turned on by deception. Cat-and-mouse romances are built on mutual respect and professional admiration, yet they’re inherently unstable, because each person is naturally trying to put one over on the other. There’s great chemistry to found at the intersection of attraction and distrust, and it transforms Zero from an antisocial misfit with a brilliant analytical mind to a (relatively) smooth operator who can’t see the case as clearly as he’d like. 

At nearly two hours flat, Zero Effect could stand some tightening, and it tends to fall slack whenever it leaves Zero’s immediate orbit. In contrast to the uneasy back-and-forth between Zero and Sullivan, there’s no mystery to Arlo’s relationship with his henpecking would-be fiancée (Angela Featherstone); she wants Arlo to end his peculiar dedication to a boss who exasperates him, and pay more attention to her. Pretty straightforward. Kasdan tries to give Arlo some dimension by exploring why, say, he would abandon his girlfriend at a moment’s notice just to fly to Portland for a pay-phone conversation. But that’s only interesting insofar as it relates to Zero and the lure of being close to such a singular personality. How it affects Arlo’s dull domestic life doesn’t mean anything. 

Fortunately, Zero Effect gets jolted back to life whenever Kasdan brings the focus back to that Doyle quote, and digs into the genius of Zero’s unconventional methods and all the problems that go along with them. In one great ironic moment, Zero gets up in arms about his clients being “victims of schemes,” yet his current client is most likely a murderer. He’s like the perfect private investigator: blind to any moral considerations, devoted to the ins-and-outs of cracking cases. To that end, Kasdan writes one of the most ingenious gumshoes in movie history, a man capable of discerning a woman’s occupation through a whiff of iodine, reading stress levels through shaving nicks, and in the film’s signature sequence, gleaning clues from the mattress dimensions at a 30-year-old crime scene. In a just world, Daryl Zero would be appearing in his eighth sequel by now. 

Next week: Requiem For A Dream
January 28: Man Bites Dog
Coming in February: The Newest Cult Canon Month, featuring Synecdoche, New York; The Fall; Let The Right One In; and The House Of The Devil

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