Review: The Zero Effect (1998)

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Harvey S. Karten

Jan 12, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/12/98


Reviewed by Harvey Karten, Ph.D.
Columbia Pictures/Castle Rock Entertainment
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writer: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O'Neal, Kim Dickens,
Angela Featherstone

Perhaps the best movie on the subject of multiple
personalities is Nunnally Johnson's 1957 classic "The Three
Faces of Eve," featuring Joanne Woodward as the woman
who not only has a life but enjoys three of them. Multiple
personality disorder of a sort is more common, if less
dramatic, in the population in general. Perhaps you're a tiger
behind the wheel of a car, honking your way through
bottlenecked traffic, but spineless when seated at the dinner
table in your own home. Or you're the employee who plays
up to his boss day after day and an absolute ogre with your
kid or dog. "Zero Effect" deals with such a guy; cool, efficient,
organized and bloodhound-capable when traveling incognito
as a private investigator: an absolute geek on a social level,
agoraphobic, whose steady diet of tuna fish recalls a
dysfunctional teen in Lyle Kessler's play about an off-the-wall
kid, "Orphans."

As played by Bill Pullman as the title character, Daryl Zero,
the movie deals largely with the detective's relationship with
two people: his assistant Steve Arlo, (Ben Stiller), wholly
opposite in temperament, accountant-stiff with a dentist's
sense of humor; and the gamin-like Gloria Sullivan (Kim
Dickens), who changes his life in pretty much the degree to
which he alters hers. While Steve tells Daryl's prospective
clients that all contact with made through him--that no one is
allowed to see the Private Eye himself--he gives the
impression that his boss is above it all, a kind of Emperor
Hirohito upon whom none may lay eyes. The truth is that
Zero is often holed up in his room, playing songs which he
composed himself, and executing them terribly.

The story is an intriguing one, filled with twists and
reversals and a surprise ending which will catch you unaware.
Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal), a fabulously wealthy but
desperate tycoon, interviews Arlo begging for help in his
dilemma. He is being blackmailed by a clever scoundrel who
asks for bi-weekly drops of $100,000 cash and puts him
through mazes that would fluster the most brilliant
experimental rat. As he reports, the cur got his or her hands
on the key to his safe deposit box and is threatening to reveal
its contents to the police if the demands are not met. Though
Stark refuses to reveal the mysterious subject matter of the
safe even to the man he hires, Zero accepts the case and,
while following the trail of the blackmailer in an assortment of
disguises, he comes upon information that makes this a far
cry from a typical case.

In a startling demonstration of the powers that have
enabled Zero to be the world's greatest detective, he tells a
woman waiting for turn for a massage appointment that she is
a paramedic. Startled with this prescience, the woman, Gloria
Sullivan (Kim Dickens) eventually learns that the iodine scent
remaining with her gave the secret away. The picture is filled
with references like this one, a series of revelations that give
it a good deal of charm.

Yet for all its wisecracks and mock-noir ambiance, "The
Zero Effect" comes across as a minor movie, one which does
not utilize the considerable talents of Bill Pullman and a puffy
Ryan O'Neal. The scene in Zero's quarters that features the
detective strumming wildly on his guitar while standing on his
mattress is almost an embarrassment. For his part, Ben
Stiller comes across as so stiff he is virtually lifeless. You
wonder how this guy, who should have had the name "Zero,"
would be courted heavily by his seductive girl friend Jess
(Angela Featherstone), whom he virtually ignores whenever
his boss calls him away on an assignment however absurd.

Still, the picture has poignance, as the virginal thirty-year
old detective falls under the Gloria's spell, from the time he
meets her at a Portland, Oregon gymnasium to the obligatory
lovemaking scene in her home.

"Zero Effect" deserves credit for an original take on the noir
genre and could have profited from a more toned-down
performance from Bill Pullman, a change which first-time
director Jake Kasdan seemed averse to making. Rated R.
Running Time: 112 minutes. (C) 1998 Harvey Karten

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