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Case Number 00553

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Zero Effect

Warner Bros. // 1998 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // June 2nd, 2000

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All Rise...

The Charge

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. 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.

Opening Statement

Zero Effect is an intricate film that starts out as a comedy becomes a mystery and finally reveals its hand turning out to be an unlikely romance. For me it was one of the unsung films from 1998, a movie I have returned to many times and one that is slowly gaining cult status.

Without revealing too much, Bill Pullman (Lake Placid, Independence Day, Spaceballs), stars as the world's greatest detective, Daryl Zero. For as skilled as Zero is in the world of detection he is inept at interpersonal relations, never doing anything as simple as kissing a woman. He is content to live in his high-rise lair composing bad folk music, drinking Tab, and doing lots of drugs. He has locked himself away from humanity, waiting for cases that grab his interest and push him out into the world. Such a case is brought to him when his trusty sidekick, Steve Arlo, played by Ben Stiller (Permanent Midnight, There's Something About Mary, Mystery Men), brings him the case of the man who has lost his keys.

The man in question is Portland millionaire Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal), who besides not having his keys is being blackmailed for something that he refuses to discuss or even hint at. Going to Portland and getting his hands dirty, the master detective finds more than he would have ever thought possible. He soon discovers what Stark is hiding and who is blackmailing him but it is what Zero finds out about himself that makes for his most confounding discovery.

The Evidence

Zero Effect is a witty, charming and multilayered film that never lets the audience know exactly where it is going. It is a breath of fresh air to find a movie from Hollywood that so refuses to take the easy, by-the-numbers approach to storytelling that is most often the norm in mainstream films.

Zero Effect makes for a confident and entertaining first effort from writer/director Jake Kasdan. Kasdan is the son of another writer/director, Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado, Body Heat) and he has obviously learned a thing or two from his very talented father. Packing more ideas than ten of your usual Hollywood flicks, Zero Effect actually benefits from multiple viewing. Like an onion, the movie peels back ideas, witty asides and personal revelations that resonate with greater force after every spin in the player. The first movie I purchased for my DVD collection, it is one I have probably watched a dozen times. Still, with every viewing I find something new to smile at, another snippet of dialogue that I may have missed and another film memory that I hold dear.

Zero Effect zips by with a sense of style and humor that puts more than a few movies to shame. His theater roots showing, Kasdan writes hip, very real sounding dialogue that begs to be listened to over and over. In addition to his talent with the word processor, Kasdan takes Bill Pullman, a performer I am not normally fond of and highlights all his strengths as an actor. Working together, Kasdan allows Pullman to give one of his best, most convincing and least annoying performances.

Visually, Kasdan was bright enough to go and get cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Bound, Darkman), to shoot the movie. His camera maintains the tension of Kasdan's writing but never sacrifices the fine work of the performers. Pope brings an active, eclectic style to the movie that always keeps the eye entertained. Hip is a word that I keep coming back to and visually that is exactly the image that Pope gives Kasdan. The film just looks cool.

I've already mentioned Pullman and all I will say in regard to him is that he is very, very good. He inhabits the role of Daryl Zero making it impossible for me to imagine anyone else in the role. Playing Watson to Pullman's Holmes is Ben Stiller as Steve Arlo. Arlo is a man torn between his boss, with whom he has an intense love/hate relationship, and his girlfriend who thinks gives far more than she receives. Finding the clients Zero works for sometimes reprehensible, Arlo wants to be able to live with himself a little easier. His most mature film work to date, Stiller gives a well-textured, funny performance. Not the actor I would have envisioned in the role, Stiller takes the ball and runs with it, making Arlo completely his own. It is work that once more shows Kasdan's great skill with actors.

As Gregory Stark, Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon, Paper Moon, What's Up, Doc?), is as desperate and pathetic as he needs to be. A man used to getting his own way, O'Neal well plays a man out of control of his own destiny. The only odd thing about O'Neal's work in the movie is if I closed my eyes I would swear it was William Shatner speaking and not O'Neal. Don't ask me where that came from but its very strange.

The other main player in the film is Kim Dickens (The Hollow Man, Mercury Rising), as EMT Gloria Sullivan. Dickens is a wonder of an actress. All of her scenes are alive with warmth, intelligence and sexuality that makes me believe she could easily put all the events in motion that the film chronicles. Dickens is a major league talent and someone that I will be keeping an eye out for.

For its DVD release, Warner frames the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and throws in another one of their fine anamorphic transfers to boot. While the image does have some minor degree of over enhancement in spots, it is, overall, a solid picture full of depth and detail. Darker colors and nighttime scenes have great clarity with shadow detail being especially strong.

The disc has a fairly quiet Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is, for the most part, front speaker driven. Surround effects are kept to a minimum with Kasdan's wonderful dialogue being the star of the show. The mix is very clean sounding and catching what all the actors are saying is never a problem.

The disc's main feature is a scene specific commentary track from Jake Kasdan. While not the most informative of commentaries, it is, however, pretty entertaining. His energy for the project is always on full display and he is very eager to share credit for the movie's strengths and take the blame for its deficiencies. Kasdan also offers a prize for the viewer willing to sit through the entire audio presentation. To collect the prize for your favorite charity you must first find a way of meeting Kasdan and then repeat the winning phrase from the track back to him. It is a nice touch that maintains the humor of Kasdan's recording.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

My number one gripe with this DVD and indeed with many other releases, is that on the commentary track Kasdan mentions how certain scenes were trimmed down for various reasons. Call me greedy but I want to see that extra footage. Many films have to hit certain running lengths as part of their contracts with the studios, so often valuable information and cool bits end up on the cutting room floor. Part of why I enjoy DVD is that the medium offers the film fanatic, such as myself, access to everything there is to know about a movie. I know Zero Effect did not exactly burn up the box office and I do appreciate the commentary track, but as Joe Nameth once said, "If you're not going to go all the way, why go at all?"

Closing Statement

Great writing, sharp acting and solid direction make for a great movie. The highest praise I can pay Zero Effect is that after every viewing I wish there was a sequel. Trust me when I say, that does not happen often at all. You can order this disc at most online retailers for around $14.99, so please click over to Amazon.com and do yourself a favor, buy this disc and learn what the Zero Effect really is.

The Verdict

In one of the easiest decisions I have had to make, Zero Effect is released from this court with high hopes that Daryl Zero and company will someday be seen again. This court is dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 94
Extras: 79
Acting: 98
Story: 99
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• French
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Jake Kasdan
• Production Notes
• Two Theatrical Trailers


• IMDb
• Complete Zero Effect Page

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