1998, R, 116 min. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Starring Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O'Neal, Kim Dickens, Angela Featherstone.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 13, 1998
Ben Stiller has one of those faces that seems to morph almost instantaneously: One minute he's a puppy dog, the next a slightly off-kilter goofball. Consequently, in a perverse respect, Stiller's thankless role in Zero Effect is an ideal one, given that it doesn't leave him much to do but alternate between those two facial expressions. A contemporary detective puzzler that's as clever as it is precious, Zero Effect is a postmodern riff on Sherlock Holmes, with Stiller playing a put-upon Watson to Pullman's brilliant but wacko sleuth, Daryl Zero. The film works if you buy its Holmesian character: a world-famous, but reclusive and socially awkward criminologist (think along the lines of Howard Hughes) whose powers of logic and deduction are unparalleled. Using a method of complete detachment and objectivity called the “Zero effect” -- a trancelike state in which he twists his body into an angular fetal position -- he can crack any case he's asked to solve. When he's not engaged as a private investigator, however, he's a complete mess -- swallowing amphetamines, guzzling Tab, eating out of tuna fish cans, and generally acting like a nutcase. Try as he may, Pullman has trouble making this virtually unplayable eccentric believable; the role is too artificial for its own good. As freakish as Pullman's performance is the appearance of O'Neal as Zero's client -- when was the last time he was in a movie? Director-screenwriter Kasdan's script is interesting in a way that other kinds of brain-teasers can be: stimulating, inventive, somewhat satisfying, but really never within reach of being solved yourself. Although the storyline puts a nice emotional spin on its central mystery of missing keys, blackmail, and revenge, it doesn't mesh very well, in large part due to Zero's incongruous character. Kasdan's directorial skills could use a little honing as well. (To be fair, this is his first effort.) There's very little atmosphere in the film, and the languid pacing nearly undermines the intermittent pleasure of the unraveling narrative. Zero Effect is by no means a disastrous debut, but it does make you wonder what the guy might accomplish in his sophomore try.