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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 39.58%
Average: 2.08%
Pretty Bad: 6.25%
Total Crap: 2.08%

3 reviews, 30 user ratings

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Zero Effect
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by David Cornelius

"One of the all-time great detective movies... that nobody bothered to see."
5 stars

My first reaction to “Zero Effect” was that it was a modern-day “Fletch,” with a smarter-than-expected mystery, a kooky detective with a flair for false identities, and countless memorable one-liners. But a second viewing showed me that the film’s hero, Daryl Zero, is instead a modern day Sherlock Holmes, and double shame on me for not getting the reference on the first try.

The similarities range from the blatantly obvious (like Holmes, Zero has uncanny powers of deduction and a wise, trusty assistant) to the slightly obscure (the plot to “Zero Effect” has its roots in the story “A Scandal In Bohemia,” in which Holmes falls for a woman who clouds his powers of observation) to the little touches (Holmes had his snuff, while Zero, a man who hates to sleep, has his speed).

So who is Daryl Zero? He’s the world’s greatest private detective, a brilliant mind who relies on objectivity and observation - “the two obs.” But he’s also quite insane, a social misfit who locks himself away from the world, preferring to eat canned tuna and pretzels by the bulk, unable to fit into regular society. “I have mastered the fine art of detachment,” he informs us in an icy cool narration, and that he has; by not being of our world, he seems to understand it most. He just can’t handle living in it.

As played by Bill Pullman in his best performance to date, Zero is both the model of insanity and the model of genius. Pullman manages to make the character work by believing so deeply in him; his Zero is not a caricature, although he may do cartoonish things. He’s the straight man and the comic sidekick rolled into one. He says the weirdest, silliest damn things you’d ever heard, only he has total faith that every word he speaks is serious business. (Making things more complex, some of the stuff he says is serious business, and the contrast of the serious stuff to the goofy stuff only makes his character’s thoughts all the more profound.)

Zero’s actual sidekick is Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), a former attorney hired to be the detective’s link to the outside world. Like his boss, Arlo is both straight man and comic relief. It all merely depends on the mood of the scene. Stiller gives his usual frazzled guy routine here, and it works. More importantly, the two stars have an effective chemistry, with each actor playing off the other with impeccable comic timing.

The plot itself has millionaire Gergory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) hiring Zero for the seemingly simple task of finding his keys. You see, on Stark’s key ring is a key to a safe deposit box, which has a link to a blackmail scandal, which... well, I better not say any more. Part of the film’s sharpness is in its intricate detailing of the mystery, which slowly comes to light as Zero and Arlo investigate the blackmail scheme. Writer/director Jake Kasdan (who later went on to helm “Orange County”) has crafted a masterful puzzle here, and watching it play out with both seriousness and silliness is a genuine treat for any mystery fan.

But Kasdan has not put all his efforts merely into creating the mystery and whipping up a few strange one-liners for his stars. While it seems at first glance that this movie exists merely to present a goofy guy mucking around in the detective genre, a deeper look reveals that Kasdan has in fact taken great care in creating his characters. We truly come to take interest in the problematic Zero-Arlo relationship (Arlo’s thinking of quitting to spend more time with his fiancée, but should he?).

More importantly, this case gives Zero the chance to finally get out of his shell, and we root for him all the way. The detective meets the lovely Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), and for the first time in his deducing life, Zero tells us, he can’t immediately tell what someone else is thinking. Gloria isn’t there merely as some generic love interest. She’s there to bring Zero into the real world.

And so “Zero Effect” works in so many ways. Its comedy is sharp, its mystery sharper. Its characters are bright and lively and endlessly watchable. This underrated, hidden gem of a movie could very well be the best mystery you’ve never seen (unless, of course, you’ve seen it, in which case it becomes one of the best you have seen, but I digress). Zero is Holmes, and Fletch, and so much more, but most of all, he’s describable only as himself. Daryl Zero is a movie character for the ages.

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originally posted: 04/05/05 05:40:46
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User Comments

3/01/12 Fuck You Ishan nmzcnmxn Doesn't mean anything. asshole. 5 stars
7/12/10 ishan nmzcnmxn 2 stars
11/16/09 mr.mike Found it pretty tough to get through. 2 stars
10/02/09 alphonse damato My sixth favorite many great lines and moments including the very last one 5 stars
4/09/08 Jerry Lundergaard My favorite movie, ever. Kim Dickens steals the show. $6.00 used. Go figure. 5 stars
9/29/07 Derek A Really Great film and a Great Debut by Kasdan. An Amazing Film! Really Awesome. 5 stars
6/24/07 William Goss Constantly compelling mystery, courtesy of Pullman's brilliant recluse. 4 stars
6/11/06 Dave Webber WAY underrated little gem 5 stars
4/30/05 Randy Johnson A great film! Zero is insane, brilliant and charming like Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently. 5 stars
4/06/05 Tjalda L. Schiel Terrific stuff. I wish they'd make the hinted sequel. 5 stars
4/11/03 Jack Sommersby Gets weighted down by a protracted second-half. Still, it's witty and Pullman is phenomenal 4 stars
2/05/03 natasha_theobald great comedy with a good mystery and original characters 4 stars
12/22/02 Modus Ponens Very, very funny and clever and well-made 5 stars
10/29/02 Stephen Arnott Great stuff, want more 4 stars
8/13/02 blakers good 4 stars
7/01/02 Jay You don't know what you're missing! 5 stars
11/28/01 Sean Top film, do not miss this one! v.clever 5 stars
11/13/01 Jim Darryl Zero = Nero Wolfe after a crash NutriSystem diet 4 stars
10/04/01 Phoenix A bit slow at times, but still an enjoyable movie. 4 stars
9/26/01 Koric McIntyre This was a fantastic movie that deserves either a book sequel or a maybe another film. 4 stars
7/30/01 Bob jones enjoyed it. 4 stars
12/22/00 DAVID FINLEY grow up 1 stars
4/15/99 Jon Jackson Original, funny, but a little slow, but hey, it was filmed in Portland, fuckin' A! 4 stars
4/06/99 Michael Grimm great movie, methamphetamine line cracked me up 5 stars
1/15/99 molly Please, more Bill pullman as Zero Effect 5 stars
11/06/98 David Torpey Average movie that crawls between it's bright spots. 3 stars
9/09/98 Johny Was a surprisingly good video rental 4 stars
9/04/98 Badass Smart and clever. But the film often drags. 4 stars
8/15/98 {{{OZ}}} Oh, Stiller, stop this silliness. 2 stars
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  30-Jan-1998 (R)
  DVD: 14-Jul-1998


  06-Aug-1998 (MA)

Directed by
  Jake Kasdan

Written by
  Jake Kasdan

  Bill Pullman
  Ben Stiller
  Ryan O'Neal
  Kim Dickens
  Angela Featherstone
  Hugh Ross

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