“Zero Effect” is a melange of hip humor, whodunit and pop psychoanalysis. A roller-coaster of ideas and tones, filmmaker Jake Kasdan’s debut feature is scattershot entertainment that misses as often as it hits its targets. Buoyed by an eccentric lead performance from Bill Pullman, the film is set for a specialized niche akin to the audience for last year’s “Grosse Pointe Blank.” But pic won’t be as successful as that feature, with only OK theatrical prospects, dim overseas potential and mild cable and cassette movement likely. Nonetheless, there’s an idiosyncratic talent at work here with the potential to blossom into bigger, better and more accomplished films.
Daryl Zero (Pullman) is the self-proclaimed greatest living private detective. His name, however, is known only to the cognoscenti, for he guards his privacy with the zeal of a Howard Hughes. If this sounds bizarre and off-kilter, it is. The shamus’ latest assignment is a blackmail case involving wealthy Portland, Ore., businessman Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal). Zero’s emissary, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), is told little by the client other than that the extortion has been going on for some time, the incriminating piece of evidence is devastating, and he wants to bring the affair to a close.
Luckily, Zero likes a challenge and sets up an elaborate sting operation to trap the perpetrator. In the confusion surrounding a fire alarm and the arrival of paramedics, the sleuth is torn between gut instincts and the tried-and-true rules he’s evolved over years of experience. He inexplicably opts to go on a hunch, drawn to the flame by emotions and flying in the face of his cardinal rule: “Passion is the enemy of precision.”
The likely suspect turns out to be Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), a woman he met in a health club and, through deduction, tagged as a paramedic. She believes he’s an accountant in town for a convention and asks if he’d mind looking over her tax return. Again, he acts against better judgment and agrees.
Kasdan is most intrigued with exploring this relationship. Both parties are presenting false fronts, so the attraction is skewed. They offer versions of themselves that are designed to please. Yet there is some internal truth they cannot disguise, which allows the dating period to continue and evolve.
One would need considerably more experience than is in evidence to pull off the picture’s romantic sleight-of-hand. So “Zero Effect” increasingly falls back on thriller conventions. The clues lead to Kragan Vincent (Matt O’Toole), a hit man once employed by Stark, and Gloria’s apparent father. A final twist reveals the true nature of her revenge.
Pullman, an actor capable of great subtlety but prone to excess, probably should have reined in his performance several stops. His character’s very nature is innately bizarre, and did not need to be overemphasized through his penchant for writing bad songs (co-written by the actor and the filmmaker) that he performs poorly. In contrast, Stiller — another actor with a tendency to give too much — puts in a deft, contained performance as a character who is Zero’s Iago, though more in frustration than treachery.
Dickens is an unusual and effective foil, and O’Neal lends stellar support, a reminder of how under-utilized he’s been in recent years.
Offbeat and arresting, “Zero Effect” is a film in need of a more assured hand. It doesn’t sustain its headiness and cannot sidestep its penchant for the sophomoric and banal.