Monday, September 26, 2011

Movie – Zero Effect (1998)

Zero Effect is a smaller movie by first time writer/director Jake Kasdan.  It is primarily a mystery movie, with some comedic moments, and a little bit of noir mixed in.  For Sherlock Holmes readers, it is a modern day retelling of the story A Scandal in Bohemia.  This is the one that featured Irene Adler in it.  Even though none of the characters in Zero Effect are named after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, and even though it is set in modern times, it is a far better representation of Sherlock Holmes than the 2009 Robert Downey, Jr. movie.

Zero Effect stars Bill Pullman, fresh off the massive box office success of Independence Day, as the title character of Daryl Zero – the greatest detective in the world.  His assistant, Steve Arlo, is played by Ben Stiller.  This was back when Stiller was still playing some non-comedic roles.  He hit it big later in the same year with There’s Something About Mary and never looked back.  The film also features Ryan O’Neal and Kim Dickens in major roles.

A man (O’Neal) hires Zero to find out who is blackmailing him.  Zero has some peculiarities, though.  One is that he never deals directly with clients.  He always sends his much put upon assistant to do the face to face work.  In fact, if Zero never had to leave his home he would be very happy.  He doesn’t fit in well socially as himself, but once he puts on a disguise and becomes another person entirely, he is very effective at working with others.

During the investigation he runs across Dickens’ character and is taken with her.  He meets her “in character” and comes across as interesting to her, but when she wants to meet him socially he is lost.  It is this disconnect between how well he handles things when pretending to be someone else, and how he really is when he is just being himself, that brings in some comedic moments.

The noir moments come in with some of the footwork, with the potential for a “femme fatale”, and with Zero doing some voiceover explaining his method.  There are a number of great lines in the movie.  One of them is Zero’s (straight faced) advice for how to blend in – “Just observe the normal people around you and then act like they do.”  Another is on how to follow people – “People know they're being followed when they turn around and see someone following them. They can't tell they're being followed if you get there first.”

Several other quotes mix humor in as Zero is giving advice – “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.”

The Sherlock Holmes comparisons are many.  Zero is a master of observation.  Like Holmes, he doesn’t form attachments to people or cases.  He outlines his method here – “I always say that the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: objectivity and observation, or 'the two obs' as I call them. My work relies on my ability to remain absolutely, purely objective, detached. I have mastered the fine art of detachment. And while it comes at some cost, this supreme objectivity is what makes me, I dare say, the greatest observer the world has ever known.”

Like Holmes he can be oblivious to the impact he is having on Arlo (his Watson.)  Zero can be impatient with others when they do not keep up with him.  While bored between cases Holmes would inject a liquid solution of cocaine and play the violin.  Zero pops amphetamines and plays the guitar.

If you have read A Scandal in Bohemia then you know that Dickens’ character is going to be the Irene Adler of the story.  Although much has been made about her being “the love of Holmes’ life” over the decades, that is not who she is in the actual story.  Even this movie has a plot line where Zero is attracted to her, but it is more in the noir tradition, and that makes it better.

The title “Zero Effect” is explained in the last lines of dialogue in the movie.  Zero is discussing the impact the case, and Dickens’ character, had on him.  They are the same impact that he tries to have on others, so he finds that he himself has been hit by the Zero Effect.

I’d like to thank CS at Big Thoughts from a Small Mind for recommending this movie to me.  Check out his blog here when you get a chance.

Unless you hate detective stories with a little bit of humor then I highly recommend this movie.  If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes (the stories) then you will definitely want to see this movie.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

           DVD                  Instant Video


  1. Glad you enjoyed the film. It somehow flew under the radar for most people but it is one of the few films featuring Ben Stiller that I really like. They tried to turn the film into a television show starring Alan Cumming but it did not work. Would love to see Pullman in the role again on the big screen.

  2. I would have loved to have seen a sequel, too. I guess the failure of the TV show must have turned off the studios. Thanks again for the recommendation.

  3. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    The first Downey Jr movie was OK despite the deviations from the canon. The second one was just a flat out actioner and I skipped it :)

    Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes.


  4. @buddy2blogger - No, I haven't seen that version. Thanks for the recommendation. I read your post, as well as the entry on IMDB. I then tried to find it on Netflix, but they didn't have it. I checked Amazon to see if they were available in the U.S. at all. They had a few sets of episodes, although none were the "Acquaintance" movie that appeared to be the origin. What they did have was also expensive.