In the past few years, first films from young directors have tended to fall into one of two categories: a navel-gazing (usually somber) love story and/or family drama set in a specific social milieu, or a brashly confident crime-caper film full of plot twists and visual bravado. Zero Effect occupies the latter category, but while writer-director Jake Kasdan still harbors the show-offy tendencies of a talented first-timer, his film has a rich texture and thoughtful performances that go beyond surface glibness.
Zero Effect revolves around Daryl Zero, an immensely eccentric and reclusive private detective in the Sherlock Holmes know-it-all vein (marvelously played by a no-holds-barred Bill Pullman). He works with his crisply efficient frontman (Ben Stiller) &emdash; a frequently exasperated Watson to Zero's Holmes &emdash; to handle seemingly unsolvable cases for clients who demand discretion and can pay big bucks. Clients such as the wealthy Portland businessman (Ryan O'Neal) who's being blackmailed and has inconveniently lost an all-important set of keys.
Kasdan makes these keys both a red herring and the key to cracking open the carefully maintained facade of Daryl Zero. He slyly weaves a straight-shooting paramedic (Kim Dickens), who's both less and more than she appears to be, into the increasingly complex narrative. All the while, the egocentric Zero is penning his professional memoir, a sort of Zen and the Art of Private Investigation.
Working with cinematographer Bill Pope (Bound, Army of Darkness), Kasdan tells his story as much visually as with the clever script. Particularly in the off-kilter relationship between Pullman and Dickens, a small gesture sums up more than a long expository speech.
While 22-year-old Jake Kasdan (son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan) doesn't quite wrap up his quirky mystery in a satisfactory manner (there are a few too many how-could-he/she-know-that? moments), he creates a oddly evocative mood piece that's both claustrophobic and expansive.
Ultimately, Zero Effect bravely lets Daryl Zero retain his troubled, enigmatic nature. It's The Case of the Detective Whose Biggest Mystery Remained Himself.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.