The Zero Effect (Kasdan; 1998)

It’s a bit of an off week for feature releases, the only two new films that came out in general release this past Friday were films which have built in audiences who will go see the films no matter what reviews say, and the rest of the population will have no interest in seeing them no matter what reviews say.  I’m in the second group for both of these films (The Divergent Series:  Allegiant and Miracles From Heaven being the two films) and I pay out of pocket to see these films every week, so I’ve decided this week to give you a review of an older film that I feel is sorely underseen.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the world’s greatest living private detective.  His services are so expensive, and so much in demand, that he has to be assisted by lawyer Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) as the faceman of nearly every aspect of his business.  That’s the story Arlo and Zero give to their prospective clients, anyway, but the truth is that Zero, when not actively working a case, is an utter social basket case completely incapable of normal human interaction.  When he is working a case, however, rarely will you see a more smooth operator.  The reason for all this is Zero’s ability to keep complete and total objectivity about the people and events in the world around him.  Then, a case comes along where his objectivity becomes threatened.

The Zero Effect is a very well written and acted modern day Sherlock Holmes story.  We don’t have a literal modern Holmes as in the BBC television show, but the characters Daryl Zero and Steve Arlo are very obviously inspired by the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, then given Kasdan’s (he both wrote and directed the film) twist.  The chemistry between Pullman and Stiller is quite evident, and also unusual as Pullman is the comic and Stiller the straight man in this relatonship.  It’s a bit sad that Stiller didn’t take on more serious roles after playing his version of Dr. Watson, as he has quite a talent for playing a toned down character and still making them interesting and memorable.


I don’t like playing the straight man.  I took the part because of other perks.

As interesting as Stiller is as Arlo, though, the true tour-de-force performance of The Zero Effect, and I’d say of his career, is Bill Pullman’s of Daryl Zero.  Pullman essentially plays a multitude of roles in the film as he switches from alias to alias then occasionally back to the real Zero throughout the film.  All his roles are distinctive, but also keep a commonality to them, and the real Zero starts to lose a hold on his objectivity as the film progresses, we see this also affect Zero’s ability to stay in character, and ultimately even his desire to.  Instead of the “play within the play” common to many dramatic works, we here have Pullman pulling off characters within a character, and it’s a pleasure to see.

The Zero Effect does have its flaws.  While all of the writing and most of thenacting in the film is top notch, Kim Dickens as Gloria Sullivan, a person of much interest throughout the film, arguably the third most important character (heck, arguably the second) gives a performance that is quite lacking.  She’s obviously meant to be a character that’s nearly as interesting as Daryl Zero himself, and the writing should have gotten that across, but Dickens simply could not pull it off.


My hair gave a better performance than Dickens. 

The Zero Effect does not deserve the term classic, by any means, but it is a film that is far, far better than it’s paltry 2 million dollar gross would suggest.  To put that in perspective, the salary of each of the lead actors in the film would amount to more than 2 million dollars a piece today, and probably did then, as well, as both were well established by that point.  The Zero Effect won’t change your life nor teach you something valuable that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life, but it will entertain you immensely.  It will put a smile on your face, it will telegraph that you just saw something original in the characters of Zero and Arlo, and it will definitely have you thinking “Why have I never seen this movie before?  That was really good.”

Rating:  7.0 out of 10

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