Monday, January 28, 2008

Zero Effect: Tenth Anniversary of Daryl Zero

Above: The title card for 1998's Zero Effect.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Zero Effect, a quirky flick set in Portland, Oregon and originally released (and mostly overlooked) on January 30, 1998. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan (son the famed of Lawrence Kasdan), the film is an offbeat detective story allegedly based on an old Sherlock Holmes story (or so the online sources say). Considering the nature and tone of the film, it should be mentioned in the same breath as The Big Lebowski and Napoleon Dynamite, but even in the era of DVD and that medium's ability to turn a previously ignored film into a cult movie, the fates have not truly bestowed that kindness upon this film.

The film stars Bill Pullman as the brilliant and mysterious Daryl Zero, Ben Stiller as his dutiful assistant Steve Arlo, Ryan O'Neal as corrupt businessman and Zero client Gregory Stark, Kim Dickens as paramedic and Zero love interest Gloria Sullivan, and Angela Featherstone as Arlo's long suffering girlfriend Jess, who just wants Arlo to quit Zero's employ.

Above: Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) and Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller).

In the film's tagline, Zero is billed as "the world's most private detective." He is an introvert and a hermit who uses Arlo as his eyes and ears in the world. Although uneven in some places, the script offers a tale of blackmail and the consequences of decisions long ago made. Stark, through Arlo, hires Zero to investigate a series of threatening letters he has received regarding some vague offense the nature of which he won't share. Meanwhile, Arlo, faces pressure from his girlfriend, Jess, who doesn't appreciate his time away and his strange relationship with Zero. To solve the case, Zero must leave his comfort zone as an observer and interact with Sullivan. It is the performances that make the film worth watching: Stiller as Arlo, Zero's trusted, though exhausted, sidekick, and Zero himself, played wonderfully by Pullman. His delivery of the lines is perfectly deadpan at times, as it is in his philosophy of investigation:

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.

If the authenticity of this purported 1998 chat transcript is to be believed, Pullman described Zero as follows shortly before the film's release: "[He is] a brilliant detective . . . [who] may have a little amphetamine problem and [has] never kissed the girl. . . . It's a Sherlock Holmes story for the 90's. Ben Stiller is my Watson, my lawyer Arlo."

Lebowski, for its part, was least just over a month later, in the first week of March of 1998. Like that film, this too is a movie about an odd detective, although Zero is a hyper-eccentric introvert rather than a relic from 1960s counterculture. But Lebowski has endured, and become a part of the pop culture landscape in a way that Zero Effect simply has not.

Above: Screen cap of the film's official site (click to enlarge).

So to observe the tenth anniversary of the film, Chronological Snobbery will be dedicating this week to the film and its components. A handy gazetteer delineates the week's coverage:
Tuesday (1/29): The Soundtrack (An exploration of the film's official soundtrack, featuring new interviews with Esthero, Neil Gust of Heatmiser, Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers, and Chris Stillwell and Michael Andrews of the Greyboy Allstars).

Wednesday (1/30): Dan Bern's Unreleased Title Track (Featuring a new interview with folk musician Dan Bern regarding his unreleased song, "Zero Effect," a tune told from the point of view of Gloria Sullivan, the Kim Dickens character)

Thursday (1/31): The Television Pilot (Featuring about as much information as can be assembled from public sources about the 2002 failed television pilot based on the film and a handful of interviews with people associated with that project)

Friday (2/1): Behind the Scenes (Featuring new interviews with members of the film's supporting cast, day players, and technical crew about the making of the film)

Above: Arlo (Stiller) talks business with Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal).

To boot, Chronological Snobbery asked nine notable bloggers of varying backgrounds and viewpoints to watch and report upon their views of the film, ten years after its release. They are a diverse lot, and not of their thoughts are positive. Some forgive the film's faults as the natural result of a first time director. Others heap scorn upon Stiller for his post-Zero Effect oeuvre. Others praise the film as the type of late 1990s indie film worthy of praise and adulation. Still another finally investigates in some detail the rumor that the film is based upon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia."

Excerpts from their posts are included below, but readers can click upon the accompanying links in order to peruse the full review and commentary of these contributors:

"The highlight of the movie is Pullman's performance as the neurotic Zero - a pretzel hoarding, power ballad writing recluse who can solve mysteries of global import with a single phone call. The role of Zero maybe the high-point of Pullman's career, where we usually see him suffering in second-banana roles or cheesy cliched movies [like the president in Independence Day]. I had my doubts about the movie when I saw that Pullman was the lead, but he pulls off the role brilliantly. Equally good is Ben Stiller's performance as Steve Arlo, Zero's utterly flummoxed assistant. I think Kasdan, who also wrote the movie, did the audience a disservice by not involving Stiller's character more into the plot. Instead, Arlo is relegated to comedic relief - if that's possible in a comedy." Digital Boy, "A Look Back: Zero Effect," Ramblings of a 21st Century Digital Boy, (1/27/08).

"The similarities between 'A Scandal in Bohemia' and Zero Effect run deeper than general theme . . . [I]n both stories, blackmail, though perhaps justified, is the crime, the blackmailer's secret is revealed during a false fire alarm, a mutual respect emerges between detective and blackmailer, and they meet only while the detective is in disguise (though cunningly identified by blackmailer). When Zero first meets Gloria, he asks her if she is a paramedic; puzzled, she affirms the claim, then asks him how he knew. Zero replies, 'I'm very intuitive.' Later, we learn, in a typically Holmesian display of 'deduction,' that it was from the very distinctive smell of iodine that Zero inferred her prior presence in a hospital or ambulance. Likewise, in 'A Scandal in Bohemia,' Holmes "deduces" that Watson has returned to medical practice from a similar smell . . . ." - Horus Kemwer, "The Method of Daryl Zero," Against the Modern World, (1/27/08).

Above: Zero (Pullman) woos Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), or vice versa.

"Our social standards begin with small talk; it is only at moments of vulnerability that we reveal our true feelings and desires. Being aware of this as well as having an extensive knowledge base to work from, Daryl Zero is able to blend into the throng of people seamlessly. He creates superficial friendships with his unknowing clients to observe them and to deduce missing information (as Dr. House says, 'All patients lie.'). As long as the friendships remain superficial, he can navigate through our societal standards invisibly. For (probably) the first time, a case (this case) requires him to move beyond the superficial friendship, whereupon he losses some objectivity, but more importantly becomes sloppy." - Matthew, "Zero Effect: An Examination of Social Behavior," Matthew's MySpace Blog, (1/27/08).

Above: Zero (Pullman) and Arlo (Stiller) walk and talk shop.

"As for the movie itself, it held up pretty well, in that the story was still interesting and engaging and the “mystery” aspect was better than many you see these days with all their forced twists and turns. I was struck immediately with the memory of how much I used to like Ben Stiller, and he is good here, good like he was before he totally oversaturated the market with himself and all his neurotic over the top performances. I really like him here as the straight man." - The 1979 Semi-Finalist, "Zero Effect . . . 10 Year Anniversary Post," 1979 Semi-Finalist, (1/27/08).

"Perhaps these characters had lived in Kasdan's head too long as a writer, and as a director, he was unable to get the performances out of his seasoned cast. Fresh out of school and with a father like Lawrence Kasdan to call in favors, movies can get made. Perhaps had Kasdan waited a bit before bringing this movie to the screen, the movie would have found its footing. . . . My guess is that I am missing something here that has kept the film alive with a certain group of fans. But on a second viewing, there's still not much to pull me in. For a movie that seems to think it has some great characters, they seem derivative. For a movie that ostensibly is about deduction and detecting a mystery, the plot just isn't really engaging enough to really feel like the greatest challenge of the career of Daryl Zero, which it must be, lest why would the movie exist?" - The League, "Zero Effect - 10 Years Later," The League of Melbotis, (1/27/08).

Above: The lovely Gloria Sullivan (Dickens) at the gym.

"I've watched and re-watched Zero Effect, less amused than confused. That is not to say that your work did not amuse me--it certainly did. It's also not to say that the plot of Zero Effect didn't make sense--sure, it did. Still, there's been something nettlesome about each viewing of Zero Effect. More to the point, there's something nettlesome about you, Jake ," - T.S.T., "Dear Jake Kasdan," Digest, (1/27/08).

"Yet in 'The Zero Effect' we . . . get a brief peek at the disaster that Stiller was to come to accompany: The narcissistic, whiney, rubber-faced-angry-little-bitch that would come to define his character portfolio up to the present. Arlo, Stiller’s character, is pepetually complaining about not getting his due, is perpetually obsessing about his relative import ( or lack thereof ), or being frustrated about his situation using the same 3 stock faces. . . . . These indictments should be sufficient to show that Zero Effect marked the death of Ben Stiller auteur, thinker, and risk-taker to Ben Stiller, chief participant of pablum. It hurts, because goddammit Ben, you have the skills, we saw them accidentally escape in your cameo in Anchorman, but dammit man, the penis-inflation sight-gag from Dodgeball? That from the guy who played in, but not too much, to great presentation in 'Zero Effect'. . . . [I]f if you’re looking for the genetic ancestor of all Ben Stiller roles since 1992, you can look to Zero Effect. If you’re writing your master’s drama thesis on the fecund period of Pullman, look to Zero Effect. Otherwise pick up 7% Solution, by Doyle, it’s conceit is much more compelling – and there’s no open-mouthed gaping stiller freeze frame that you will need to endure." - Steven G. Harms, "The Zero Effect: 10-year anniversary,", (1/27/08).

Above: Arlo (Stiller) and his girlfriend, Jess (Angela Featherstone).

"Kasdan seems to be searching for a style in this film, which isn’t a surprise because it’s his first, and I thought that his direction was uneven. I disliked the opening, with the cross cutting between Arlo negotiating a deal for Zero’s services with Stark and complaining about Zero in another. It was an effective way to dose out exposition but too cute. It is the kind of technique that Kasdan could pull of now with more economy and precision," - Adam Greene, "Zero Effect," Dude, He's The Stallion, (1/27/08).

"It is customary, in introductory logic courses, to treat logic as some sort of language in which we can express, more clearly, statements of ordinary language. Accordingly, students will be asked to translate ordinary language into logic and vice versa, which only becomes interesting in the context of quantifier ambiguities. Philosophers, always in need for yet more examples to give as exercises to inquisitive students, need look no further than the movie Zero Effect," madamechauchat, "Determining translation," Atoms to Zeppelins, (1/27/08).

Above: Gloria Sullivan (Dickens) in a noirish pose.

Contemporary critical response in 1998 was tepid. Noting that "the brilliant nerd hero from the Pacific Northwest is overdue in movies," Janet Maslin of The New York Times, writing on the day of the film's release, described Zero as "an aging hippie Sherlock Holmes with the household habits of a Howard Hughes." Yet in Maslin's opinion, the film could not overcome certain hurdles: "For all its admirable ambitions, this loosely focused first feature has the makings of a better buddy story than detective tale anyhow." Two weeks before, on January 12, 1998, Harvey S. Karten, in a review posted on, wrote:

Yet for all its wisecracks and mock-noir ambiance, "The Zero Effect" comes across as a minor movie, one which does not utilize the considerable talents of Bill Pullman and a puffy Ryan O'Neal. The scene in Zero's quarters that features the detective strumming wildly on his guitar while standing on his mattress is almost an embarrassment. For his part, Ben Stiller comes across as so stiff he is virtually lifeless. You wonder how this guy, who should have had the name "Zero," would be courted heavily by his seductive girl friend Jess (Angela Featherstone), whom he virtually ignores whenever his boss calls him away on an assignment however absurd.

As a cinema-goer, I have often wondered what it must be like for an actor or director to wake up on the morning that their latest film is released. Was the film shot so long ago that on the day of its ultimate release, they feel overly distant from it? Is it like a campaign volunteer waking up on election day knowing that all the work is (mostly) done and the rest is in the hands of the fates? Do they grimace knowing that there remain more publicity and marketing duties? Does it matter whether they are proud of it?

Above: Stark (Ryan O'Neal) is apprehensive.

I suspect that Pullman, Stiller, Kasdan, and Dickens were proud enough of Zero Effect (although they probably knew it was far too quirky to attract mainstream attention). Ten years later, though, the film has only a slight presence on the Internets; it has no Wiki, it has few pages dedicated to its remembrance. None of its catchphrases have been invoked in any of the rapidly coming and going Internet memes. (Although at least one person has attempted a Daryl Zero separated at birth post, while another has created a Daryl Zero MySpace profile.). Some time ago, one Liz Crisostomo created an online gallery of Zero's various identities including Nick Carmine, Mitchell Hodgemeyer, Harold Burgess, and Sergio Knight. Crisostomo also includes links to 1998 press coverage.

But there is little else.

Without further ado, Chronological Snobbery inaugurates this week of posts to commemorate the tenth anniversary of this little remembered film from the late 1990s. Revisit this post in the coming days and the above referenced gazeetteer will provide direct links to the next posts.


Russ Burlingame said...

This is the most brilliant idea ever. I'm going to read through and enjoy every word of this craziness. When I used to work at a little family-owned video store in Syracuse, I promoted the hell out of "Zero Effect," which at that point had already been out on video for three or more years. I pushed it so hard that the last year I worked there, we needed to buy three more copies to keep up with demand and the flick ended up on our Top 100 Rentals for the ENTIRE YEAR, beating out numerous new releases for which we had five or six times as many copies in stock.

It was a moment of great pride for me.

Jon said...

I love this film. I don't see a wrong note at all in the whole film. Pullman is amazing and acts the hell out of the part. Role of a lifetime if you ask me. Stiller is good and not annoying. Dickens is beautiful and her acting is so natural and graceful that you forget she's acting and completely see her character Gloria instead of her as the actress. It's a love story wrapped in the conceit of film noir mystery that's given the indie film treatment of parodying certain key genre elements thereby producing a nuanced comedy; namely a film that refuses to stick to one label. I cannot praise this film more. I simply love it.

VaderMcCandless said...

I looove Zero Effect. Great articles, interviews and the like. It really should be remembered alongside The Big Lebowski as one of the great bizarre detective films.

gwat1usn said...

Having seen Zero Effect when it came out, I recently watched it again and came away with the same feelings.It seems at first labored with the initial introduction of the main characters, specifically scenes that run way too long. But after the first 10 minutes it really became engaging and by the end, endearing. The key scenes to me are Pullman explaining to the girl in the diner about his parents (defines everything); when Stiller tells Ryan o'Neal he will shoot him if he bothers Zero at the motel, it shows his devotion and to me justifies Stiller's whole role in the movie; Kim Dickens was captivating in every scene she was in with a quiet intensity you could feel. Her final scene on the phone at the airport wrapped the whole thing up for me in a very satisfying way (as did Zero's final voiceover). I don't find this a comedy, never did, but a flawed though ultimately satisfying little character study that stayed with me long after viewing.

Anonymous said...

would it not be badass if they made a sequel?

Bob said...

I must have watched this movie close to 50 times. I love it and also can't see why it isn't more liked. But then an old acquaintance of mine always said I was a "weird duck".

The Topiary Cow said...

Love this movie. Just can't understand people who don't. Thank you for finding more about it and posting all this info, which I will be reading.
So great to find someone else as interested in the movie as I am.

Daryl Zero said...

I think Dos Equis owes Daryl zero a few royalty checks... I swear the whole ad campaign was stolen from this movie. Zero was the original most interesting man

Unknown said...

Love this film...."Zero Effect"!! This is Pullman at his absolute BEST! Wow! His characterization of Zero is mesmerizing. A perfect movie for quirky SPD types like me! :)) I discovered this movie on a forum and I am sure that if more people knew about this film it would be more popular! Time will tell! In any case, I will definitely be watching this film again.....Yes, because in a very special way....the "Zero Effect"......keeps adding up! :)

Nick said...

This is a great film !!! Vastly overlooked and certainly underrated. Many kudos to the late Roger Ebert who recognized what a fine film this is. Yes, it is decidedly a modern take on Sherlock Holmes,especially A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA,the first of the Holmes short stories. Now to think of it, this film is way ahead of it's time when you consider all the modern takes on Sherlock Holmes as of late. Surely, this film is a inspiration for SHERLOCK and certainly ELEMENTARY (one could even argue Robert Downey's Holmes films after a fashion)in style and substance,source material notwithstanding.
So, the reason it really hasn't reached cult status is even more bewildering when it not only deserves it, but screams it as well. To Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller and Jake Kasdan: Gentlemen, you film deserves better. At least, there's a nice HD version currently playing on Showtime...

Unknown said...

I consider this my favorite film.