Sunday, January 27, 2008

Zero Effect - 10 Years Later

The League has been asked by the powers that be at Chronological Snobbery to participate in a bit of a movie review round-robin for "The Zero Effect". It seems that the movie, Zero Effect came out ten years ago. I saw it on DVD within a year or so of its release on home video.

Rather than try to remember a movie I hadn't seen in about 9 years, I picked it up from Netflix.

I admit that I wasn't a huge fan of "Zero Effect" when I saw the movie the first time. I definitely got that the movie was a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, with Bill Pullman in the role of Daryl Zero/ Holmes and Ben Stiller in the role of Steve Arlo/ Watson. While working, Daryl Zero has superhuman abilities of deduction and intuition. Off the case, he's a drug-addled lunatic who plays the guitar. Badly. Just as Holmes was supposed to play the violin and partake in a bit of, if memory serves, cocaine, the analog is pretty straightforward. And just as Watson was supposed to declare "by jove! How the deuce did you deduce that, Holmes?", so is Stiller put the position of being both impressed by his employer's abilities, as well as assisting him and representing him to the public.

And while I certainly wouldn't want a "modern day Holmes" movie, I wasn't sure what, exactly, Kasdan was trying to create. Was this Holmes through the eyes of the modern day detective movie? Or was it Holmes through the eyes of the son of a successful Hollywood producer?

The plot/ mystery of the movie is an excuse for the audience to meet Daryl Zero and Steve Arlo, and to challenge the status quo we're to understand they share when the movie begins. Should Steve Arlo give up his working relationship with Zero for the way it interferes with his personal life? Can Zero find love?

What starts off as an amusing premise never really works. The movie isn't funny, and I don't think it's intended to be so. So I'm not really sure what Kasdan was intending. Too much time is spent concerned with the quirky relationship of Zero and Arlo, and the mystery plot isn't necessarily engaging enough on its own to work as a feature film. Perhaps this would be a great pilot leading into a television series. Long story short, its tough to ever know what is supposed to be the A-plot of the movie, and what is intended to the B-Plot. Are we watching a movie about Zero and Arlo or the blackmail case they're supposed to be uncovering? Is this a standard case for them, or is this one particularly unusual?

Part of the problem is that Pullman is only occasionally convincing as an unhinged eccentric genius. Too much of the time, perhaps, he's on the case, and so seems together. Other shows, such as Monk or Psyche feature quirky detectives (Monk, most specifically comes to mind as an example of a detective program which is completely dedicated to the protagonist's psychoses). Prior to that, Columbo and others had been pretty wacky detectives working through convoluted plots. There's nothing here in "Zero Effect" to defy expectations. Instead, not a whole lot seems to happen. Character bits that are revealed skew towards the depressing, but with so little time to get to know Arlo and Zero, its tough to get invested. Pullman has never struck me as an actor of great range, and Zero Effect does nothing to erase that notion.

TV and movies are full of such characters, and drug-addled mood swings may look good on paper, but in a movie where we're given little room to feel sympathy for our leading man to begin with, profanity-laced binges don't really draw you in. Honestly, the idea seems like something lifted out of a completely different movie, as does the intentionally awkward "Zero plays the guitar" scene.

Ben Stiller's portrayal of Steve Arlo is hampered by stilted dialog he delivers mostly through clenched teeth. This would have been a post-"Ben Stiller Show" Stiller, but pre-Super Stardom from "There's Something About Mary" and the schticky groove Stiller would carve out with films like "Meet the Fockers". Honestly, I'd forgotten he was the Watson-archetype in this film, and raised an eyebrow in the first frames when he appeared. He more or less disappears going into the third reel, with one scene which resolves his character arc and a tacked on wedding scene to give our character an out at the end of the film.

Readers may recall that the Sherlock Holmes stories were told from the perspective of Watson in order to give the reader the same surprise the audience might feel upon hearing Holmes spout out an amazing deduction. However, director/ writer Kasdan switched the POV from Arlo to Zero somewhat abruptly early on in the film, taking away the exasperated amazement that Arlo might feel working side by side with an unknowable genius. In many ways, this gives the feeling that the screenplay was cobbled together from various parts of various drafts and that there's never any solid, single point of view to the movie. No doubt this was done to accommodate the scenes with GLoria Sullivan, which, by necessity to the plot, could not include Arlo. Unfortunately, this makes Arlo semi-redundant within the structure of the story.

For someone with so much screentime and who is supposed to win over Daryl Zero, Kim Dickens' Gloria Sullivan is a surprisingly dull character and never feels like the foil she's described to be in the film's final moments (I literally paused and thought to myself... "oh, yeah... I guess she did do all of that..." as Zero re-capped why he admired her so.). Ryan O'Neal is really the only other player, and so in a mystery such as this, there just really isn't much mystery to go around. But he pretty much plays Ryan O'Neal, if you're wondering.

Director/ Writer/ etc... Jake Kasdan would have been about 23 at the time of the film's creation, and that may account for a lot of the problems with the film. Too young, perhaps, to really realize he was recycling material. Mistaking drudging, monotone dialog for moodiness, and Dennis Hopper-channeling mania for Zero as "quirkiness", whatever humor he finds in the inconsistent pill-popping of Zero simply doesn't work.

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.

I'm not familiar with the box office on Zero Effect, but I do not recall the movie doing well at the time of release, and only rented it originally at the suggestion of someone else.

Kasdan's follow up efforts haven't been as serious in tone. He directed the dispiriting, laughless "Orange County" (a movie which seemed as if it was written by the most entitled priviliged kid for other entitled privileged kids.). It is telling, I think, that I left the theater before "Orange County" was over. We had technical problems with the film in the final reel, and rather than wait for the theater to fix them, we demanded a refund and left.

Kasdan also directed this winter's musical/ comedy "Walk Hard", which was funny when relying on the improv talents of the players and otherwise awkward and clunky, and certainly stretched on about twenty minutes too long.

Perhaps Kasdan had originally intended to write a comedy with Zero Effect. Perhaps he even believed that's what he was shooting until he got back his footage. Who knows? The movie begins on a an absurd note, suggesting some dark comedy... and abandons any humorous aspects about twenty minutes in before giving up and plodding to a finish.

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?

As someone participating in a round-robin of "Zero Effect" reviews, I'll be curious to see what others say.

I was going to close the post with something dickish about how the movie had "zero effect" on me. And that's probably still true. But, mostly, I feel the movie is forgettable, and has been largely forgotten. It's never a good sign when you realize upon watching a movie again for the second time that you have no recollection of the plot or characters from the first viewing. It's a worse sign when you are dead-certain mid-viewing that your brain may be erasing the movie from your memory before you've even finished watching it, and that's not going to help when it comes time for the big reveal.


JAL said...

Coincidentally, the poster for the film fell out of my closet yesterday.

I was working at the theatre at the time of the release and was actually eager to see the film. I watched it at a technical screening and found it to be well made and genuine. It was one of my favorite films of it’s year. When the vast majority of films, even some very good ones, are so prepackaged to deliver to a specific audience or serve an individual purpose, I found “The Zero Effect” to be refreshing. I don’t think it was supposed to be a comedy, mystery or anything really. I don’t think it knew. For me, the story just unfolded as it was supposed to, without an inclination toward any real notion of genre or parameter.

The League said...

before I get into this, I want to acknowledge that JAL and I went to film school together, have collaborated, agreed upon movies and frequently disagreed upon movies. I, for example, think that "it stars Tom Cruise" is a legitimate criticism of any movie. JAL does not.

I find myself once again in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing with JAL. I see where you're going with the argument, but I can't buy it.

Yes, Zero Effect is not a comedy. It is, however, a detective movie. It is about a detective solving a case. Does that make it beholden to any particular trappings? No. Does it try to use trappings of noir detective stories from the vengeful child in the byzantine plot surrounding a wealthy family? Yes. Does it end differenly than the way it was originally projected to, like so many detective movies and books? Does the detective fall for the very girl he suspects is the heart of the trouble? Absolutely. Does it borrow from Holmes? Extensively.

In all the ways that count, including some of the lighting, this is a detective movie.

If it does not feel like a detective movie, I would point to Kasdan's approach. He's not required to hit the beats of a 1940's-era Chandler movie, nor those of a Doyle short story. But he does. It's the filler in between which seems to keep it from feeling like a standard detective story, and that may not be a bad thing.

As a 23 year old writer/ director for a major motion picture, Kasdan seemed very much in love with his characters. He knew their background and their current state. What he was unable to do was convey those characters in a manner I found effective or interesting.

Clearly this is a case where something worked better for you than me. Perhaps had Kasdan a few more pictures under his belt and a better grasp of his craft, that might have been the time to bring his characters to the screen. But as it was, I chalk up the shapeless form of the movie to inexperience rather than a technical breakthrough.

JAL said...

Of course, you should never feel uncomfortable disagreeing with me on film. The "Tom Cruise" statement is quite accurate. If I had to count the number of films that I responded to when few others did, it would be ridiculous.

The League said...

You are always won over by his boyish, winning smile.

JAL said...

it's true.

Anonymous said...

What about films with unicorn pendants?

The League said...

What about Tom Cruise the unicorn?