Zero Effect

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Special Edition DVD

Warner, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Digital Mono, subtitles: English, French, double side-single layer, 31 chapters, rated R, 116 min., $19.98, street date 7/14/98.


  • Audio commentary by writer/director Jack Kasdan
  • Production notes
  • Theatrical trailer

Studio Line

Directed by Jack Kasdan. Starring Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O'Neal, Kim Dickens, Angela Featherstone, Hugh R. Ross.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman), private detective, has taken the 20th century artform of complete detachment to its zenith. He is a mysterious man who maintains no personal connections, no foolish passions, no . . . well, no real life to speak of. He has only his work - and his sharply-honed powers of impartial observation have sealed his rep as the world's most effective criminal investigator.

So removed from the world is Daryl Zero that he conducts his business through a front-man, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), a smooth-talking young attorney who hides Zero's neuroses and numbed, reclusive lifestyle from their sophisticated, high-paying clients. If Daryl Zero is a man with no life to speak of, Steve Arlo is a man with no life of his own, a man who lives through the glory and genius of his otherwise annoyingly arrogant and socially inept boss.

Together, Zero and Arlo have solved some of the world's most stultifying criminal cases, including The Case Of The Man With Mismatched Shoelaces and The Case of the Hired Gun Who Made Too Many Mistakes. But now they may face their most challenging case yet: the case of taciturn Portland timber tycoon Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) who has lost his keys. Stark has lost the keys to a safety deposit box and he has contracted Zero to find them. He won't reveal or provide any clues as to the contents or answer as to why he is being blackmailed.

The case is right up Daryl's alley -- calling for his trademark ability to dispassionately ferret out the details criminals leave behind. But one thing stands in Daryl's way -- something he has never encountered before. An attachment. Of the female kind. As the investigation gets under way, Daryl finds himself drawn to an intriguing paramedic (Kim Dickens) who makes his heart do dangerous stops and starts. How will Daryl function when he begins to feel things about what he's observing? Will Steve Arlo find the courage to declare his independence? And where the heck are those keys?

Zero Effect, a classic murder mystery with a comically dysfunctional detective hero at its center, marks the directorial and screenwriting debut of Jake Kasdan, who puts an original and outrageous new spin on the classic detective genre.

Picture/Sound/Extras (A-/B+/C+)

Zero Effect is one of those movies that came and went really quickly when it hit theaters in early 1998. Granted, it was a limited release, but it ended up really limited. I heard good things about it but by the time I wanted to see it, it was long gone.

I also heard positive comments about the film's DVD release later in that year, but once again, my procrastination kept me from seeing the film for quite a while. Finally, a good special at Reel prompted me to buy it, so nearly two years after I first expressed interest in the film, I watched Zero Effect.

Was it worth the wait? Not really. It's a decent film and it marks a fine first effort from director Jake Kasdan (son of director/writer Lawrence), but I ultimately found it to be somewhat unsatisfying. The film's main fault is that it's simply too long. I recognize that 116 minutes doesn't sound very long, and when compared to most other films these days, it's not.

However, running times, like many things in life, are extremely relative. At nearly three and a half hours, Titanic could have been bloated, but it seemed just about right, whereas I found the 94 minutes of The Jerk to appear never-ending. Objectively, 116 minutes is no big deal, but in this case, it makes the movie feel like an endurance test.

Part of this appearance of extended length results from Kasdan's focus in Zero Effect. After starting the film as something of a clever screwball comedy, Kasdan spends much of the movie concentrating on making the picture mainly a character study. This "switcheroo" isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it seems erratic and inconsistent. The story veers in this direction and really seems to go off track; character interactions largely lack believability and maintain little interest from the viewer.

Once again, the film's length negatively affects these tendencies. The move of the story into "character study" territory could have worked better if the film had been pared down a bit. As it is, the slow pace wears down the viewer and reduces the overall effect of the story.

Speaking of which, the plot also largely takes a back seat to the character moments. Really, the story gets lost along the way. It pops back up from time to time when Kasdan needs it to push character development, but it like an afterthought, just something that exists as a reason to show us these people.

Let me restate that I'm definitely not opposed to strong characters. I'm very much in favor of them, and I believe that too many movies discard them in favor of plastic action and bombast. Zero Effect goes too far in the opposite direction, however; Kasdan loses his story because he spends so much time dallying on his characters. As a result, the movie meanders and spins its wheels for much of its running time.

Still, it's an interesting and watchable movie. I just felt that it should have been much more. All aspects of the production are competently executed. I've liked Bill Pullman ever since I first him as the moron Earl in 1986's brilliant and hilarious Ruthless People; his unusual delivery and quirky style nicely counteract his movie-star looks. Pullman's fine in Zero Effect, although he too is inconsistent; he never seems to quite nail the role as eccentric private eye Daryl Zero, but he manages to make the role work for the most part.

Unlike my positive feelings for Pullman, I've never cared for Ben Stiller, and his starring role in the radically overrated clunker There's Something About Mary didn't exactly endear him to me. However, he's reasonably effective in Zero Effect as he struggles to do what he can with weak material. His role as Steve Arlo exists almost entirely for expository purposes; those parts are about as thankless as they get. Stiller gets the job done and manages to add a little spark to the role, which is about all we could expect.

Maybe expectations were part of my problem with this film, actually. I went into it with little foreknowledge, so maybe now that I know something about it I might find it more compelling. That discovery will have to wait for another day; I'm nowhere near ready to watch this film again. In any case, despite its flaws, Zero Effect remains compelling and interesting enough for me to want to maintain it in my DVD collection.

Since the film received a pretty nice DVD issue, the quality factor won't be a strike against it. Warner Bros. have offered the film in both its original theatrical aspect of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided DVD. Overall, the image appears very sharp and clean. At times interiors seem somewhat spotty; these lower light situations appear grayer and less clear than they should.

Other than those occasional flaws, though, the picture satisfies. Colors seem accurate and appropriately bold, and black levels appear equally strong and impressive. I also detected no signs of grain, print flaws, or digital artifacts. All in all it's a very nice effort.

Zero Effect offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. This track appears unambitious but satisfying. The mix makes nice use of the front soundstage; audio spreads nicely across the three front channels to open things up well. The rear channels don't receive much of a workout, but they don't need to in this kind of film, and when they are featured, they work effectively; check out the scene where Zero and Gloria (Kim Dickens) shoot at cans for some cool directional effects.

Finally, the audio mix consistently sounds very good. Speech, effects and music all come across as clean, crisp and natural. Zero Effect doesn't offer an audio track that you'll use to demonstrate your system, but it nicely complements the film.

The DVD of Zero Effect also doesn't offer much in regard to quantity, but what we get is pretty well done. The main attraction is a running audio commentary from director Kasdan. It's a good track. Kasdan focusses on all of the important areas, from casting to story to the other various decisions he made, and he maintains a nice light touch throughout his monologue. Actually, this track includes DVD's first audio commentary contest; Kasdan doesn't think anyone listens to these things, so he inserts a "mystery phrase" into his talk. If you ever meet Kasdan, simply recite the phrase that pays and he'll donate five dollars to you favorite charity. Considering how unlikely it is that any of us DVD fans will ever bump into Kasdan on the street - much less run into him and recognize him - I think he should offer more money, but it's a fun comment nonetheless.

Zero Effect also offers a few other minor supplements. There's a pretty good theatrical trailer, as well as a few screens of brief but interesting production notes and some decent biographies (five cast, three crew). It's not an extensive complement of supplements, but it's not bad.

Zero Effect is one of those films that puts me in a quandary when it comes to making a recommendation. The movie itself is interesting but flawed. The DVD presents the picture nicely, with strong image and sound, and a few good supplements round out the package. Since the DVD retails for only $19.98, I think it's worth a purchase, but if you're still doubtful, you might want to rent Zero Effect first.

Related Sites

Current as of 1/5/99

Official Site--A rather ordinary site with the usual sypnosis, trailer, cast and crew info.
James Berardinelli's ReelViews--"Zero Effect is a mixed bag, and it's sure to look a lot better when it eventually reaches HBO than it does playing on the big screen at the local multiplex."
Roger Ebert--"If the plot is ingenious, it's the personal stuff that makes the movie increasingly delightful."
The Bill Pullman Fan Page--"Welcome to The Bill Pullman Fan Page, the source of information about Bill Pullman on the Web. He has captivated us onscreen with wonderful performances in varied roles." to purchase are the DVD at special discount and the original music soundtrack by various artists. the DVD at special discount.
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