Zero Effect

(Jake Kasdan, USA, 1998)


Zero Effect, written and directed by Jake (son of Lawrence) Kasdan, may well turn out to be what the industry calls a sleeper. Modest and unassuming in many respects, it is a terrifically satisfying and intriguing debut. It is the sort of movie that creeps up on the viewer: beginning in a light comic vein and slowly working around to pathos and insight.

The initial comic premise of the piece is original. Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is a master private detective, the best exponent of his own theories of investigation. Daryl needs merely to walk into a situation and cast his glance over seemingly mundane details to know almost everything about a person: their character, vocation, goals and worries.

Unfortunately for his partner and front man Steve (Ben Stiller), Daryl is also a graceless nerd of the highest order – a cyber geek with few social skills, and a romantic notion of himself as a soulful singer-songwriter (Pullman helped compose Daryl's atrocious tunes). Daryl's work – always leading to people's basest motives – has led him to develop a solipsistic, even misanthropic world-view.

When Daryl takes the case of the harried businessman Stark (Ryan O'Neal) – who has lost his keys and is being blackmailed – he naturally wonders what problem his client is really hiding. A trail of clues and small adventures eventually puts Daryl in contact with Gloria (Kim Dickens) – a no-nonsense type who may have a hidden agenda of her own.

Once Zero Effect subtly switches gears and begins exploring the curious relationship between Daryl and Gloria, it enters Jackie Brown (1997) territory: a terse, touching tale of hit-and-miss emotions within a plot where everyone is trying to scam everyone else. Kasdan never touches the profound melancholy of Tarantino's fine film, but he plots a lovely course of incidental details and interactions.

There are minor problems in the film's construction. The gap between the abominable Daryl we first see, and then the suave, charming Daryl working undercover, is too great to believe. Kasdan's recourse to scenes of Steve yakking about his problems with his best friend provides a clumsy form of exposition.

But Zero Effect works extremely well – in large part because of a clever plot that continually brings its diverse elements together in surprising and telling ways. Kasdan is obviously a talent to watch.

MORE Kasdan: Orange County

© Adrian Martin August 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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