Saturday, April 5, 2014

Zero Effect


The counseling staff here at the Benny Ford center are quite pleased with my progress. They tell me that I am close to being cured of my unfortunate addiction to that cursed substance, Special K. I have a few more sessions with my private counselor in which we have to explore my father issues and conduct some serious batonnage. I also have to complete some more group meetings in which I get to deliver my favorite line, "Hello everyone, this is Mrs. Norman Maine" before launching into dramatic monologues on how I was brought to such a low estate. 

Madame Rose, my publicist, came for a visit this past week. She's trying to interest People into running a cover story on my descent into the madness of drug use and my subsequent recovery. She's sure my smiling face on the cover in one of my stunning GlamourPuss couture creations would be a newsstand bonanza but she's running into a little trouble with the folks at Time-Warner. Warner Brothers always did have it in for me, ever since my days as an ingĂ©nue on the back lot when I accidentally ran over Bette Davis with my golf cart. It really wasn't my fault. I was late for my call on stage 17 and she did look like a pile of storm detritus in that ratty old fur thing she was wearing. If People doesn't work out, Madame Rose is fairly certain she'll be able to get Grit. 

This afternoon was film afternoon at the center so all us recoverees gathered on our ancient plastic Eames chairs in the rec room to watch Zero Effect, the 1998 debut film from second generation Hollywood film maker Jake Kasdan. (His father is writer/director Lawrence Kasdan.) Zero Effect bills itself as a fresh spin on the private eye genre but it's really an uncredited remake of the A. Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia. That's the Holmes story with Irene Adler, the closest thing Holmes ever had to a love interest. 

Bill Pullman plays Daryl Zero, a brilliant private investigator who's a complete mess as a person. The film contrasts  his marvelous intuition and abilities to read people and remain objective with his inabilities to relate to people as human beings. He lives a hermit's life in a Los Angeles penthouse where he mucks with computers, lives on a diet of Tuna, Tab, and vodka, and composes horrendously bad Dylanesque love songs. His one human contact is lawyer Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller in the Watson role) who acts as his assistant, foil and emissary to the outside world. Zero is hired by Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal), a wealthy industrialist in Portland, Oregon to expose a blackmail scheme. Some months previously, Stark lost his keys, including the key to a safe deposit box in which he kept some sort of scandalous secret. He's now being blackmailed by an unknown person. Zero arrives, dons various bad wigs and facial hair in the name of disguise, and soon uncovers the blackmailer, a young woman named Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) who works as a paramedic. Things get complicated when Zero, for the first time in his life, falls for the blackmailer and loses his perfect objectivity. 

For a small budget writing/directing debut, the film is not bad. It has some clever moments, some real insights into the psychology of the central characters and some sharp dialog. The central mystery is cleverly plotted (although sharp viewers will figure it out long before the peerless detective does) and it rejects a typical Hollywood ending for a much more honest one that's truer to the characters. On the other hand, the film is not as clever as it thinks it is. There are moments when young Kasdan thinks he's being brilliant when he's merely sophomoric and a number of key scenes, especially a climax involving a planetarium, that are awkwardly staged and overly confusing. 

What pulls the film into the watchable category, more than anything else, are the two central performances by Pullman and Stiller. Pullman, almost always excellent on film, creates a credible eccentric genius. There's honesty behind his mannerisms and odd behaviors and the character hangs together as a psychological whole. It's a difficult job to create an unlikable character and still have the audience root for him as protagonist. Stiller leaves his usual comic personae behind for his role as the straight man. His best scenes are early in the film when he has to create both a public icy exterior for dealing with the world as Zero's henchman and a confused would be friend who tries hard to understand and empathize with his decidedly weird boss. It's a little unclear what motivates Stiller's Arlo to stick by Zero and his bad behavior but we get a sense of deep mutual trust lurking in the background. 

The supporting cast are more types than characters. Ryan O'Neal seems to be playing his Oliver Barrett IV from Love Story as he would be thirty years later after too many board meetings and expense account dinners. Kim Dickens doesn't do much with her underwritten role. No one else sticks around on screen long enough to make an impression. 

The DVD contains a good print of the film with a reasonable soundtrack. It doesn't use surround sound terribly well and seems a bit like a rush job. The only significant extra is a commentary track with writer/director Kasdan who is not a terribly articulate young man. He doesn't give as much insight into his film as he thinks he does and probably did the track more as a contractual requirement than anything else. 

Bad guitar playing. Pager led treasure hunt. Gratuitous Bentley automobile. Money in toilet tank. Airport conversations. Fake accountancy. Forgotten receipt. Keys in couch. Gratuitous Angela Featherstone in bathing suit. 

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