Wednesday, 29 June 2011

VHS Quest #9. Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan, 1998)

Watching the detectives... Bill Pullman stars in Zero Effect (1998)

At some point in life, no matter how diverse our paths may be, we've all shared one experience: we've lost our keys. Many of us, after an exhaustive search, would be heard to mutter, "They're always in the last place you look." Of course, to keep on looking for your keys after you've found them would be a futile exercise, so they're inevitably in the last place you look.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the guy who knows exactly where to look. He can read people; they express details in their posture, movement and vocal tone that most of us take for granted, misunderstand or ignore. He can reel off your name, profession and home address within seconds of meeting you. And he finds Mr. Stark's (Ryan O'Neal) keys, which unlock a safety deposit box, lodged down the side of an office sofa. Makes sense, when you think about it. Mr. Stark, under the impression that somebody had stole the keys, simply never thought to look there. Life can often be like this...

Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, who wrote and directed The Big Chill (1983), has just released the atrocious Bad Teacher (2011) into cinemas. He's fallen a long way from this unappreciated gem, which is one of the quirkiest movies of the 90's, but nowhere near as annoying as that sounds. Kook is now associated with the likes of Wes Anderson and Miranda July, and their specific brand of incisive eccentricity can send a shiver down certain viewers spines. Indeed, modest intellectualism, colour-coded decor and emotional set-pieces involving the immediate danger faced by a bagged goldfish aren't easy sells, but Zero Effect's brand of quirk is toned down and attached to solid genre convention. It's a detective movie through and through; just unlike any you've ever seen.

Daryl is a dysfunctional recluse, scared of the world which exists outside his four walls and emotionally guarded from everyone he knows; that is if he even knows anybody other than his personal assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). We are introduced to Daryl while, gruff and unshaven, he rocks out in a pair of red pajama shorts and a Hawaiian T-Shirt. He's awkward and fumbling, yet sharp as a tack, and his reservations ("I have mastered the fine art of detachment") allow him to see through people. Emotion is a hinderance to him, yet it remains the gaping hole in his life. This is the only fact which he can't deduct for himself. I dare not estimate Daryl Zero's IQ. It's higher than yours or mine.

Pullman, an eternally underrated actor whose CV is packed with undervalued films, turns in a career best performance here, and remains magnetically watchable. He has a kind of monotone deadpan charm, and that sounds like a string of criticisms, but it's a quality which no other actor but him possesses. His screen presence is unique, and no film has exhibited it quite as well as Zero Effect. Every tick, every deduction, every failed attempt at conversation, not to mention his one outburst of true anger, all lead up to a movingly bare telephone conversation, where he plays all his cards straight. It's a nuanced and powerful turn, but its subtleties have been ignored.

Stiller is also great in an early performance, while O'Neal and Kim Dickens, as a suspect and love interest, provide ample support. But what I really love about Zero Effect is the affection it has for these characters, and the honesty with which it portrays them. Kasdan proves himself a masterful writer in the opening scenes, which provide a hilarious juxtaposition between Arlo's pitch to Mr. Stark, wherein he paints Daryl as an impeccably confident, impossibly intellectual and well travelled super sleuth, and his too-many-drinks-down-the-line confession in a bar, wherein Daryl becomes a hopeless freak ("Tactless and inept. Rude, too. Just an asshole."), who's never even kissed a girl. The truth is that both are pitches, neither can be trusted, and Daryl remains impenetrable - likely he is a combination of the two. We never really know him, but we get to like him, despite the frustrations he causes Arlo, and frequently awkward social interactions. There's never any sense that Kasdan is trying to make us like Daryl, but we do, because his persistence and smarts are endearing. He believes himself to be one of the good guys. I believe him.

Frequently funny, Zero Effect isn't the most stylish of films, and despite Kasdan's confidence behind the camera this is not a director's showcase. The writing and performances are spot-on, and it's a pretty unique little flick, so while it's no lost masterpiece it certainly doesn't deserve to be lost... dig this one up. You won't regret it.

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