Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Film Review: ZERO EFFECT (1998, Jake Kasdan)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 116 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O' Neal, Kim Dickens.
Tag-line: "The world's most private detective."
Best one-liner: "I don't think he's ever kissed a girl. He's like thirty-something years old."

"There aren't evil guys and innocent guys. It's just... It's just... It's just a bunch of GUYS." ZERO EFFECT is a sharp, rapid-fire, late 90's reimagining of Sherlock Holmes as 'Daryl Zero,' a Tab-swiggin', atrocious acoustic guitar-playin', occasionally agoraphobic, and exceptionally needy bundle of nerves aptly portrayed by Bill Pullman.

His Watson is an incredibly put-upon Ben Stiller (before he became a mere Hollywood finger puppet), who, by virtue of his sidekick-y duties, must respond to Zero's every excruciating beck and call.

The bulk of the story is culled straight from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (in particular, the story "A Scandal in Bohemia"), right on down to Holmes' monographs for future generations, the strung-out multi-day benders, and an 'Irene Adler'-style feminine foil ("THE Woman"). Unfortunately, much like MILLER'S CROSSING (the Coens' masterful Dashiell Hammett facsimile), no credit is given to the source material. ...Are you serious?!

Regardless, this is a well-spun tale: intricate, well-acted, and consistently compelling. The mystery's supporting players include a pompous, frazzled tycoon played by Ryan O'Neal:
and a personable but inscrutable medic portrayed by the underrated Kim Dickens (Joanie on DEADWOOD, Cassidy on LOST). Beginning with simple blackmail, a set of missing keys, and the realization that "You can't buy silence- you can only rent it," the threads mingle and interweave with one another, and by the time we reach the denouement, the whole has succeeded in being greater than its parts, which, in the detective genre, is really all you can ask for.

An auspicious debut for writer/director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence), who would go on to both outdo (THE TV SET) and embarrass (WALK HARD) himself. Four stars. (Note: later revisited- by Kasdan- as a failed TV pilot, starring Alan Cumming in the Daryl Zero role.)

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

I would kill to see that failed TV pilot.

Love this film! This is probably Bill Pullman's best performance to date as he pulls out all the stops playing a private eye that mixes Sherlock Holmes with Fletch.

There are some truly memorable lines in this film, too: "I always say that the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: objectivity and observation, or "the two obs" as I call them." Great stuff.

This is one of those films that I pull out and watch every so often and it makes me wonder what the hell happened to Ben Stiller? He showed so much promise only to piss it all away (for the most part).

It's a shame that ZERO EFFECT was a commercial dud as it really deserves multiple sequels.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, it's unfortunate that the pilot is unavailable- clearly the role is Pullman's through and through, but I'm sure that Cumming would come up with something masterful and unexpected.

The erosion of Stiller's credibility is unfortunate. Being a big Baumbach fan (mostly of his early stuff, though), I'll be interested to see what he brings to the table in GREENBERG, but I'm not really holding my breath.

Unknown said...

I've heard good things about GREENBERG and it has Jennifer Jason Leigh in it so there's that. I still think one of Stiller's best films is PERMANENT MIDNIGHT. Man, he was good in that one.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, I'll definitely still check out GREENBERG. And PERMANENT MIDNIGHT is the sort of film that makes his involvement in something like NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 seem even more blasphemous.