Posted: 09/14/1999


The Zero Effect


by Del Harvey

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THE ZERO EFFECT is a clever updating of the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. While Holmes relied on his powers of observation and deduction, modern-day private detective Daryl Zero also uses his “nerve center,” a semi-circular array of computers linked into every network around the world, thus allowing him to obtain any information within seconds.

But Zero (Bill Pullman) has become, as his name would imply, a complete cipher, a man without an identity. He has no personal connections or passions other than ferreting out solutions to his clients’ cases. When he isn’t coming up with brilliant solutions to mysteries, he lives alone behind a steel door with six locks on it and bobs up and down on a mattress singing to himself.

He is so far removed from the world that he maintains direct contact with his clients only through a “front” man, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), a polished young attorney who keeps his partner’s neuroses hidden from their clients. Together they have solved some of the world’s most baffling criminal cases, including “The Case Of The Man With Mismatched Shoelaces” and “The Case Of The Hired Gun Who Made Too Many Mistakes.” Arlo and Zero spend much of the early part of the film reminiscing about these triumphs with a concentrated seriousness that is extremely amusing.

Zero and Arlo’s relationship has been working well for them for many years, but Zero is under pressure to rejoin the real world. Both Arlo and Arlo’s fiancee (Angela Featherstone), are growing tired of Zero’s quirks. As Arlo mounts the courage to tell Zero the partnership is over, an intriguing case comes along. A Portland timber tycoon named Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) has lost his keys to a safety deposit box, but will not reveal the contents to his hired investigators. Zero is immediately suspicious, but he takes the case anyway.

His investigation leads him to Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), an enigmatic woman who holds many secrets about Stark’s past and his intense desire to retrieve the stolen deposit box key. Gloria a classic femme fatale, mesmerizing the innocent and reclusive Zero, who soon finds himself torn between his traditional professional remove and the unknown sensation of love.

Pullman and Stiller are exceptional here as the modern-day Holmes and Watson. Pullman’s subtle shape-shifting disguises are effective, and he slips in and out of characters in a mostly believable way. Stiller continues to show an incredible array of acting ability with each new performance. Here he plays it straight, portraying a character who is also conflicted, though less obviously so than Zero. Arlo must come to terms with the conflict between his upcoming marriage and his partner, who wants to control his life.

Writer/director Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence Kasdan of The Big Chill and Silverado fame, has done an excellent job with his first-time effort, which is much better and more complex than any of his father’s works.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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