Movie Review: "Zero Effect"

February 04, 1998|By Jason Myers

Since Peter Sellers so slyly, superbly inhabited the role of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther film series, Hollywood has been unable to look at private detectives without at least a trace of a smirk - if not a full-throttle chortle. Without irony, mainstream movies would not be able to function with private detectives as protagonists.

"Zero Effect," the debut film from writer-director Jake Kasdan, son of famous director Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill"), is nothing if not ironic.

The delicious opening montage features sharply attired businessman Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) assaying sharply attired business tycoon Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) of the considerable qualities of Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman), a world renowned private investigator.

Arlo is Zero's agent - is there really another field that requires agents? - and Stark has lost his keys (which include one to a safety deposit box, the contents of which are being used in a blackmail extortionist plot against Stark). After each remark Arlo makes to distinguish Zero in Stark's company, he makes an acidic counterpoint to deride Zero in a friend's company.


In the next scene, Arlo returns to the homestead of his employer, a fortress so meticulous in its security that it makes the White House seem ... well, considering the recent pall cast over the residence of the President, it is probably not the best example of an analogy. Let us just say that it would be difficult to break into the apartment. Zero performs what might be the most dissonant piece of music ever filmed (no offense, Celine Dion), only to be complimented and exulted by Arlo.

This establishes Arlo as a patronizing and passive character - but why is he intimidated by Zero, whom Pullman plays as an egocentric master of intuition with less social grace than Dennis Rodman. Kasdan fails to develop anything within the relationship between Arlo and Zero, even though it is one of the film's central dynamics.

Zero's idiosyncrasies of intellect (how he notices the dimensions of a hotel room and determines if safety regulations are being violated; the way he can smell a certain scent on a person and deduce her occupation) are revealed so subtly that they seem uninspired, half-baked attempts at characterization.

Kasdan works at a pace that many will deem dull and unrewarding, and I thought the film was sluggish. The movie aspires to an organic rhythm of comic observance, which last year's great "Grosse Point Blank" displayed so effectively and effortlessly, but more often than not "Zero Effect" reaches no destination after traveling at a dangerously slow rate.

What hinders it mostly is its inconsistent tone. Pullman, whose performance relies more on amusing nuances than comedic generalities, seems confined to play the role as a deadpan oddball.

A scene in which Zero, disguised in beard, conducts a conversation with Arlo in an airport as the two sit just a few booths away is one of the few genuinely hilarious parts of the movie, but also one of the most contrived. Kasdan, who has made a comedy not so black as gray, wants to humanize Zero, but falls back into motion picture stereotype when he exploits him for cheap laughs.

Zero, as he investigates the case of Stark (not to be confused with his previous success on The Case of the Man With the Mismatched Shoelaces), writes his memoirs. What awkward anecdotes he relays in prose often purple are delightfully witty in their ridicule of the man's self-importance. (Kadan definitely does not flatter his characters, especially if they have huge egos.) But there is a lacerating undercurrent to them. Kasdan humiliates his character as often as he humbles him.

I was enchanted by the romance that develops between Zero and a paramedic (Kim Dickens) whom he meets at the gymnasium where Stark works out. Their scenes are handled with a wistful wisdom that is not present in much of the film's sarcasm and parody.

Kasdan's film has a smart, sophisticated plot, but its characters, when not simply stagnating, achieve no catharsis, and I left the theater satisfied but somehow unmoved.

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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