On the surface, Zero Effect appears to be a honest attempt by writer/director Jake Kasdan to bring the classical detective story forward, into the modern world (circa 1998). Obviously, certain conventions of nineteenth century detective fiction had to go away. Others required radical alteration. But take heart: the same dime-store morality that rule the best (and worst) of those nineteenth century tales is still in force here, though good Victorians would hardly recognize it, dressed in its late-twentieth century ambivalence. The film almost succeeds, fumbling only because it feels it must fulfill the expectations of its small-but-vocal audience, rather than fulfilling its own inherent promise.
Depending on how you look at things mysteries have either decayed as a genre or triumphed beyond all expectations. Only Romance enjoys broader social saturation. What’s a story without a Problem for a protagonist to Resolve? And what’s a story without a Love Interest to spice things up and lure women into theaters? So goes the logic of Hollywood marketers and the artists who labor under them, forced to dress even their best ideas in these tried n’ true tropes, the better to “market” them.
So we have Sherlock Holmes dressed down for the late-90s, de- and reconstructed in an attempt to render the World’s Greatest Detective archetype both contemporary and “cool” (insomuch as those are different things in today’s middle-minded, nobrow culture). You’re forgiven for wondering what in God’s 216-letter name compelled Kasdan to cast Bill Pullman in this role. I can’t imagine anyone saying, “You know who screams ‘cool’? The guy who played Walter in Sleepless In Seattle! President Fighter Pilot from Independence Day!”
For better or worse, Pullman is Daryl Zero, a private detective so good he commands outrageous fees and never meets with his clients…which is just as well. If Mr. Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) is a representative sample of Zero’s clientele, I wouldn’t want to meet with these people either. But before we get to that, we’re treated to Daryl Zero’s own Watson, Steve Arlo (a pre-There’s Something About Mary Ben Stiller), giving Stark The Pitch, exactly the kind of airbrushed, laudatory verbal blowjob Arthur Conan Doyle frequently gave Sherlock Holmes, making Arlo the World’s Greatest Agent, Captain Jerry McGuire. And, in the film’s first attempt to deconstruct its own conventions, Arlo’s pitch is intercut with an after-hours, bar-table bitch session, delivered to his friend, Bill (Hugh Ross).
Daryl Zero is both “the smoothest operator you’ve ever seen,” and “rude, too. Just and asshole.” His inductive and deductive skills are second to none, but, “I don’t think he’s even kissed a girl before…too uncomfortable in his own skin to go out and eat.” Arlo is Zero’s sole representative and sole social contact with the outside. Between cases, Zero haunts his penthouse apartment/vault in Los Angeles, writing bad songs and living on a strict diet of Tab, canned tuna, and amphetamines. But once he hears Greg Stark’s tale of blackmail and lost safe-deposit box keys, he’s on the job and off to beautiful, sunny Portland. Like Holmes, Zero can turn from drug-addled lassitude to dedicated investigation on the thinnest of dimes, has no life outside his work, and styles himself “the greatest observer the world has ever known.”
The fact that Portland is so sunny and beautiful should clue you into the amount of artifice on display. Not that that’s as foreign to the mystery genre as its adherents would have us believe. The mysteries of who’s blackmailing Greg Stark, and who might’ve absconded with his safety deposit box keys, are little more than elaborate MacGuffins, providing Zero only a few bare chances to display his investigative skills in two key scenes that nonetheless make the film. Chance meetings have as much to do with solving Zero Effect‘s central mystery as any of Daryl’s famed and entertaining skillz…and that mystery’s solved half an hour into a two hour film, leaving only the kind of resolution Arthur Conan Doyle would’ve consigned to the last two paragraphs of your average detective tale.
The real mystery is, can the classical detective story exist in the modern world of Hollywood film? Ask yourself this and the reason our modern Sherlock Holmes must be a socially-inept crazy man, little more than a high-tech, well-to-do Unabomber, becomes apparent. The last century’s Great Detective was, by and large, a pargon of reasonableness and virtue, Captain Victoriana, the most intelligent man in the world. Daryl Zero is Captain Survivalist, a hermit with a listlessness even Holmes might think self-indulgent. I imagine they could jam over a pile of high-grade coke, but I doubt they’d work well together, and it’s no surprise Baker Street Irregulars the world over have dismissed this film as cheap, crafty, and insulting to the very thing it so obviously loves. (Like the names Zero gives to his past cases: “Remember the Case of the Hit Man Who Made Way, Way Too Many Mistakes?”)
And that’s not entirely a bad thing, since Kasdan’s attempting to strike out on his own and twist an old mold he obviously enjoyed the hell out of in his childhood. Hey, it certainly didn’t do George Lucus any harm (he, instead, harmed us). But Zero Effect‘s debt to Holmes becomes even more obvious after (spoiler alert) we realize we’re watching a modern remake of A Scandal in Bohemia.
Can the classical detective survive in a modern Hollywood movie? Not without a love interest he can’t. So Zero is immediately smitten with Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens…who’d go on to enliven Deadwood in her role as Joanie Stubbs), a paramedic obviously stalking Stark. Given Zero’s penchant for shadowing his clients, he stumbles into Gloria at the gym she not-so-coincidentally shares with Stark. Their relationship is the closest thing to a “heart” in this film, and its most modern element. Despite Holmes reference to Irene Adler as “the woman,” you’d never find him helping her out with her taxes. Thanks to the hidebound morality of his era, Holmes existed in a world of virtuous black and white. Whether that world reflected the reality of his times or not is a separate discussion; he (and his Boswell, Dr. Watson) acted as if it were so.
Kasden has Arlo tell us that world is gone. It has “moved on,” to quote another one of Holmes literary descendants. When Zero attempts to claim that he and Arlo are “the good guys,” Arlo’s lawyerly instincts demand he proclaim, “There aren’t any good guys. There aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. It’s just… It’s just…It’s just a bunch of guys.” But I’d question Kasden’s commitment to this notion. The film keeps its heart firmly in Daryl Zero’s corner, extending enough extra room for Arlo (when he’s on the job) and Gloria, once Daryl grows closer to her (posing as an accountant named Nick Carmine, he even does her taxes). We discover (to no real surprise) that she’s more of a “good guy” than Greg Stark the rich timber company magnate could ever hope to be. As if that weren’t enough, she and Daryl almost reenact the milkshake scene from Pulp Fiction.
These two make one of the most awkward couples I’ve ever seen in a film, making their relationship one of the freshest in a decade, terabytes more complex than your average movie “romance.” There’s a tension in their interactions as we’re left wonder just how much each knows about the other, and who’s going to make the first move as their true selves. Through their at-arm’s-length courtship (which takes up most of the film) we learn the Great Detective can survive in the modern world…so long as he loses his objectivity…and I don’t blame him one bit. I, too, have waited many a lonely night for a woman ask me, “Wanna try the shotgun?” and Dickens is perfect for her role. Nuanced and straight forward at the same time, she manages to project a daring intelligence through her spot-on Portland Yuppie impression, careful to suggest rather than reveal how much she truly knows…allowing us to suspect that she’s smarter than anyone else on stage.
Like Ben Stiller. Would you like to know how much I like this film? Enough even to tolerate Stiller’s presence. His Arlo is just the kind of lawyer you want: fictionally good, smooth as a crooked cop, and boringly middle-class. I’m less enthusiast about Arlo’s little mini-conflict vis a vi his relationship with Zero on the one hand and Jess (that is, his girlfriend, played by Angela Featherstone) on the other. Hell, for Angela Featherstone, I’d throw Daryl Zero over the side of the Titanic and club his fingers with a paddle if he tried to climbed into our lifeboat. Besides, Arlo’s opening monologue(s) make his true feelings clear so the final resolution of his arc is no surprise to anyone.
Bill Pullman, on the other hand, is the movie’s real left-fielder in what’s probably his best role to day. As titular character, narrator, and Great Detective he gets the most to do, handling it all with a deftness he’s not displayed since (to my knowledge). His Expository Speech is easily the most memorable in the film, being a revelation of his Defining Element of Tragedy. In it’s own way, Zero Effect is one of the strangest superhero movies of the 90s (right down to the title which reappears as the last line of the film in true, “Call me…Darkman” fashion), a sleeper hit with a well-deserved cult status. It’s even well-written for all that Kasdan’s script leans on expository speech making. When the chips are down and it really matters, characters reveal themselves through their actions and reactions to the ethical quandaries arising out of the plot. For all its soap operatic devices, Daryl and Glroia manage to get quite existential, especially for Hollywood.
So, of course, their tension-revealing (PG-13) sex scene takes care of that in yet another shout-out to modern convention. These are the weights around Zero Effect‘s neck, drowning it in its own mediocrity. Odds are you could predict the entire film from what you’ve read thus far and write out your own draft of the shooting script. This would not be some Holomesian act of penetrating insight. Only the product of experience, the elimination of the impossible, leaving only the however-improbable remains.