Daryl Zero is the world's greatest private detective but, as summed
up in today's buzzwords, the man has some serious issues. We learn all
about him, good and bad, from two conversations at the start of the
film. In the first, Zero's mouthpiece is meeting with a client and
giving a sales pitch. (Zero never meets with anyone unless he is
assuming a false identity.) In the second conversation, the same
mouthpiece is complaining about his eccentric employer while
conversing candidly with a close friend, his tongue set free by the
twin liberators of trust and alcohol. We learn that Zero really is as
good as his billing when it comes to detective work, but is more or
less a complete failure - a Zero, if you will - at any form of normal
social interaction. He has never been seen with a woman. When not
solving a mystery, he is paranoid, tactless, agoraphobic, and
delusional. He resides securely behind an impenetrable door which was
intended to be a bank vault. If an intruder could somehow breach that
barrier, he would then be confronted with an anfractuous maze of doors
and corridors. If the intruder could somehow solve the maze and reach
the door to Zero's actual residence, he would require about a dozen
keys to navigate its locks. The frustrated mouthpiece must navigate
these same hurdles just to report to his boss face-to-face.
The film's basic premise intrigues us in the early going, but the
narrative is too talky, since the script essentially tells us about
Zero through the dual monologues of the mouthpiece, rather than
through situations. We get tired of watching a talking head shot, but
the concept gets our attention nonetheless.
Once the mouthpiece has made his way to the inner sanctum, we begin
to suspect we have been had, and that the film will be nothing more
than a surreal farce, an episode of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, except
without the pets. Zero has been playing one of his cacophonous musical
compositions and he asks the mouthpiece if he likes it. We already
know from the opening monologue that the mouthpiece hates Zero's
music, but he tactfully says, "Yes." His body language and the tone of
his voice would tell us he is lying even if we had not already heard
his frank opinion, but Zero does not seem to notice.
Wait just one second here.
Zero's previous character exposition has already informed us that he is the
greatest analyst of human behavior in history, and that he is utterly
tactless. Granting those points, Zero must know that the mouthpiece is
lying, and must immediately note the lie with a rude remark. But Zero
seems utterly clueless to signs that could be picked up by a fifth
grader. Huh? So are we to think that everything we have heard about
Zero is a lie? No, not at all. Zero later proves to be exactly as
first billed. The confusion is caused by a sloppy piece of
screenwriting in the early going.
So the film does not get off to an exceptionally good start. First
there is too much narration. Then Mr Zero fails to live up to our expectations.
Furthermore Daryl Zero and his mouthpiece both seem like asses at that
point. I almost gave up on the film right then and there.
I'm glad I didn't because Zero Effect eventually turns out to be a
terrific film. Whatever clumsiness was being experienced by the author
in those early scenes is overcome completely, and the film evolves
into quite a nifty little noir. Zero is hired to find out who is
blackmailing a magnate. It turns out that the blackmailer is the good
guy (girl, in this case), and the high-rolling client is a murderous
ass. It also turns out that the blackmailer is approximately as smart
as Zero himself, and engages him in an intriguing little game of cat
and mouse. He comes not only to respect her, but to love her as well.
That places him squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If he satisfies
his client and identifies the blackmailer, the client will kill her.
But if he saves the woman he loves, he will sully his impeccable
reputation and ruin his perfect record of client satisfaction. Quite
Well, Zero is the smartest guy in the world, so we know he'll
figure it all out somehow, but finding out how he does it is what
keeps us watching. As we watch, we overcome our initial judgment that
Mr Zero is an utter asshole. We even start to like his sardonic
mouthpiece, because we realize that working for Daryl Zero is about as
demanding as any job has ever been, and even a slick, stylish lawyer
may have ideals, sweetness, and a loving relationship at home which is
constantly strained by Mr Zero's demands.
The film is inspired by the noir films of the 40s and 50s in that
it has a complex narrative, a shady client who is less than
forthcoming, and many plot contrivances, but that
particular provenance does not account for the characters. The character of Daryl Zero comes
from a completely different world. Zero is not a role to be played by
Bogart or Mitchum. Unlike the detectives played by those icons, Zero
is never in the dark, never taciturn, never on the edge of poverty,
never a mature adult, and never physical. He never throws a punch, and
has no idea how to use a handgun. His world is the world of the mind,
he's an overgrown kid playing a real-life version of a computer game. Because he works in
disguises and false identities and never meets with the clients,
nobody but his mouthpiece even knows who he is or what he looks like.
In an earlier time he would have been played by someone like Basil Rathbone or Christopher Lee or James Woods, someone cunning,
blunt-spoken, aloof and intimidatingly smart, someone we are not
supposed to find cuddly.
In short, Zero is Sherlock Holmes a hundred years later. It is no
coincidence that the film takes various bits of inspiration from
Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia." Conan Doyle, writing
through Dr. Watson, said this of Irene Adler: "There was but one woman
to (Holmes), and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and
questionable memory. To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I
have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes
she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex." The blackmailer
in Zero Effect is Daryl Zero's Irene Adler, and his diary entry about
her reads, "She is the only woman I ... (pause for correction) ...
She is the only woman."
Of course, Zero Effect is a much funnier film than anything we
might expect from Sherlock Holmes. Yes, it is a mystery and an offbeat
love story, but it also includes many comic elements, as you can
deduce from my description of Zero's apartment building. It walks the
line between comedy and noir, and does so quite effectively. That's a
difficult line to walk, and it's amazing that a 23-year-old making his
maiden voyage as a writer/director maintained his balance on that line
and rarely slipped up, because that kind of challenge has defeated
many an old industry pro.
In creating this film, young Jake Kasdan, did about as well in the
role of first-time film auteur as anyone in history not named Welles.
It is downright astounding that a film this good, this smart, and this
much fun to watch was basically the work of one guy about the age of a
college senior. Of course, Kasdan has some pretty good genes workin'
for him. His dad Lawrence wrote a few films you may have heard of: The
Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill
But genes or no genes, the kid still had to get the job done. And
that he did.