In many stories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is described by longtime business associate Watson as a disorganized bohemian, a man who lives in chaos of his own making and refuses to adhere to “social convention.” And yet, in what appears to be the mess of his personal life, Holmes hides an expansive knowledge of human behavior and an unparalleled attention to detail that, to modern audiences, might make him seem like both a walking contradiction and a cartoon character. In Zero Effect, writer/producer/director Jake Kasdan accomplishes the fairly monumental task of bringing Holmes into the modern era through the character of Daryl Zero.
Kasdan introduces Zero before we ever meet him, through dueling monologues by the same character—Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), his “messenger”—who first tries to sell Zero’s services to wealthy client Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal), then complains relentlessly about him to a friend. Essentially a recluse, Zero lives in a penthouse suite protected by a mammoth vault security door (beyond which is another door containing six individual bolt locks) that would disgust the people featured on Hoarders. He subsists on canned tuna and Tab, writes terrible folk songs, doesn’t bathe or shave, and abuses Arlo for no apparent reason.
When Zero gets on a case, he becomes a different person. As he himself puts it (narrating his own story as he writes a memoir that will be read by no one), he blends in by “looking at what normal people do and trying to copy it.” That’s not to say he’s not still eccentric. He employs an astonishing, increasingly hilarious number of cover identities and disguises as a result of deep-seated paranoia. He even brings Arlo to the Portland airport just to tell him to go back to L.A., via pay phones a few feet away from each other, because he refuses to use long-distance lines (“They listen, you know.”).
Zero’s working method consists of what he calls “the two obs”: objectivity and observation. He refuses to meet with clients, which is why Arlo serves as his messenger to the outside world, because he doesn’t trust them. They always have something to hide, and the only way Zero can objectively assess them is by donning a disguise and watching. He has mastered the art of detachment. He also gives names to all his cases, such as “The Case of the Hitman Who Made Way, Way Too Many Mistakes.”
The film balances three central ideas: the crumbling working relationship between Zero and long-suffering Arlo, a blossoming romance—possibly Zero’s first ever—with paramedic Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), and a mystery plot that rivals classic film noir. Gregory Stark hires Zero to find a set of missing keys but refuses to tell Arlo anything useful, which strikes them both as suspicious. The search for a set of keys leads to extortion and a tangled murder plot. One of the great joys of the film is watching the way this mystery unfolds in tandem with the character study. The web gets more and more tangled until Zero finally puts all the pieces together—but the solution could jeopardize the relationship he has formed with Gloria. Will Zero forsake “the two obs” for love?
It amazes me that a movie starring Bill “President Independence Day” Pullman and Ben “There’s Something About Mary” Stiller did a box-office belly flop and became a footnote in cult-film history. The always reliable Pullman has never been better than Zero, an extremely difficult character to pull off (why do you think most Holmes films omit the seeming contradictions of his personal life?). Stiller turns in a great, conflicted performance as Arlo, who knows how much Zero depends on him but feels the need to break away and resume living his own life. I’ve always felt Stiller is underrated generally, because so many of his memorable roles take him a few shades over the top, and anyone who disagrees with me should watch this movie. Dickens has the role of femme fatale, but she plays Gloria as a real person, not Jessica Rabbit. Her performance alone adds a needed layer of complexity to an often thankless, one-note archetype. The only thing I can say about the slimy weasel played by Ryan O’Neal is that I wish O’Neal worked more. Has he been less than great in anything?
Zero Effect has convinced me that Jake Kasdan should have the same sort of career Jason Reitman (another second-generation director) has: an accolade-garnering studio-backed-indie darling. Although he’s done some great work, particularly in TV, he’s never lived up to this debut, and that’s a shame.
Nevertheless, we’ll always have Zero Effect, one hell of a great film. Anybody who enjoys comedy, “quirky” characters, and well-crafted mysteries will love it.