Zero Effect (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Elementary, My Dear Arlo

He’s the world’s most brilliant private investigator. He has a head for handy trivia. He is a master of disguise and uses dozens of aliases. He can tell you what you do for a living with only the barest of glances at you. His name opens doors everywhere. Okay, instead of cocaine, he lives on Tab and amphetamines. Instead of the violin, he plays guitar — badly. Instead of nineteenth-century London, he lives in Los Angeles on the verge of the twenty-first century. But apart from those minor differences, Daryl Zero is basically Sherlock Holmes.

Writer/director Jake Kasdan read my mind. I’ve been thinking about writing about an updated Sherlock Holmes for the 90s for years, and he beat me to it with the witty and wonderfully off-kilter Zero Effect.
Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman, from The End of Violence) is a bit more reclusive than Holmes. As Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller, from There’s Something About Mary), Zero’s “sole representative,” explains to new client Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal): “He never meets any of his clients. He doesn’t speak with them or for that matter communicate in any direct fashion.” And as Arlo complains to a buddy: “He never even leaves the house.” Neither of which is strictly true: Zero does leave his maximum-security, vaultlike apartment in L.A. to investigate the blackmail case Stark presents him with, and he does speak to Stark — using an assumed name. Stark never knows he has met the man he has hired — for a king’s ransom — to locate, yep, a lost set of keys.

The case is not as innocuous as it sounds, naturally, entailing blackmail and rape and murder, and ends up confounding Zero in the only way it could. Zero pinpoints Stark’s blackmailer almost immediately — a woman, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens, from Mercury Rising), who doesn’t fit the standard criminal profile. Like Holmes, Zero has “no social life — in fact, no social skills,” according to Arlo — he’s awkward around women, and Gloria more than most disconcerts him. In fact, Gloria is very much like the only woman ever to bewilder Holmes, Irene Adler, who appeared in the story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Like Irene, Gloria is a clever woman with something compromising on a powerful man, and the detective has to trick her into revealing it. “A Scandal in Bohemia” begins with “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.” Zero, who acts as his own Watson, documenting his methods in voiceovers for the audience, calls Gloria his “worthiest opponent” and “the only woman, period.”

And as with the Sherlock Holmes stories, part of the fun of Zero Effect is that the detective is such a genius that he’s always three steps ahead of us, allowing the movie to surprise us in ways that traditional mysteries can’t always get away with. But unlike in the Holmes stories, here the detective and his assistant have a much more contentious relationship: Arlo actually can’t stand Zero, and is fed up with the constant jerking around he gets at the hands of his eccentric, ultraparanoid employer — which makes for a much more dynamic story. Ben Stiller is perfect as the prickly, put-upon, finally-had-enough Arlo. Stiller should be doing more films like this, and fewer like There’s Something About Mary.

But Zero Effect is Pullman’s movie, and he’s never been so good. I’ve always liked his affable appeal, even in silly movies like Spaceballs and Independence Day, but here he gets to go to town with the fractious and complex Zero. This is his most intense performance yet, both mentally and physically, and yet he’s not showy about it: Even when Zero throws one of his regular tantrums, you get the impression that Pullman’s not letting us see all of his character’s rage. Instead, it kind of roils beneath the surface, as in a scene with Gloria, where he’s obviously uncomfortable at her closeness, and all but explodes when she unexpectedly touches him.

I love this movie. Watson shared Sherlock Holmes’s cases with audiences for years. Can we have some more Daryl Zero, please?

[reader comments on this review]

share and enjoy