On The Case of the Man Who Got So Stressed-Out Over His Lost Keys That He Eventually Had a Heart Attack And It Turned Out They Were in the Sofa All Along
Detective stories are huge again these days, thanks to the success of Knives Out, Glass Onion, and the latest cycle of Hercule Poirot movies starring Kenneth Branagh.
In January of 1998, 25 years ago last week, there was another detective movie that arrived, which wasn’t such a huge hit and didn’t lead to either sequels or a revival of the genre. But the film is a delight, and a super-unique way to tell this type of story.
The movie was Zero Effect, it was set in Portland and based loosely on the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
Bill Pullman, in the middle of his Independence Day / While You Were Sleeping career peak, played Darryl Zero, the Sherlock Holmes figure, a mysterious and reclusive private detective who has a policy of never meeting his clients. His Watson is Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), an intermediary who actually deals with the clients. Stiller, then in his early 30s, was in his final months before There’s Something About Mary would establish him as a leading man later in 1998.
Zero and Arlo are approached by an evil rich guy named Gregory Stark, played by Ryan O’Neal in one of his last roles of any significance. In a post-Game of Thrones and Iron Man world, it’s kind of jarring for a fictional character to have the last name “Stark.”
It’s something of a convoluted plot, although the plot is less important here than the characters and dialogue. The client/villain is being blackmailed, and Zero gets to know the blackmailer (Kim Dickens, from Deadwood) and falls for her. Meanwhile, Arlo is being pressured by his girlfriend (Angela Featherstone) to quit his work with Zero.
Zero is later compelled, of course, to violate his own rules, and also to get over his deeply ingrained cynicism.
It’s All in the Dialog
When I think back on Zero Effect, the things I remember most are the lines. Some really outstanding monologues, mostly by Zero himself. And my goodness is Bill Pullman great at voiceovers.
“When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad,” he says at one point. “Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.”
That one later has repeated echoes in the Gloria plot that repeatedly mentions “looking for,” and that’s not the only one.
“I can’t possibly overstate the importance of good research. Everyone goes through life dropping crumbs. If you can recognize the crumbs, you can trace a path all the way back from your death certificate to the dinner and a movie that resulted in you in the first place,” Zero says. “But research is an art, not a science because anyone who knows what they’re doing can find the crumbs, the wheres, whats, and whos. The art is in the whys: the ability to read between the crumbs, not to mix metaphors. For every event, there is a cause and effect. For every crime, a motive. And for every motive, a passion. The art of research is the ability to look at the details, and see the passion.”
Post-Zero Effect Careers
Zero Effect was written and directed by Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, in his debut. Kasdan would go on to direct films of significance (Walk Hard), big box office success (both modern Jumanji films), some interesting indie stuff (The TV Set), and outright dreck (Sex Tape). Zero Effect remains his best film.
In an alternate universe, there could have been four or five more of these movies, possibly based on other Holmes tales or other classic literature. But alas, it was a flop, and with box office success later coming to the participants in other, very different movies.